AN MEK6ENC THE LIBRARY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA ENDOWED BY THE DIALECTIC AND PHILANTHROPIC SOCIETIES PR52I9 .Rf65 R6 UNIVERSITY OF N.C AT CH^^^^^^ 00027562343. This book is due at the WALTER R. DAVIS LIBRARY on the last date stamped under "Date Due." If not on hold, it may be renewed by bringing it to the library. DATE DUE RETURNED DATE DUE RETURNED SEP 2 .9 Z012 FORM NO 513, REV. 3/84 t The Romance of an Emergency THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY * * • .Rlip's' Mrs. G. S. REANEY AUTHOR OF « « "UNDER orders" • « "just in time" « « "glady's vow," etc. LONDON • « « HENRY J. DRANE (V£ OLDE ST. BRIDE'S PRESSE) « SALISBURY HOUSE SALISBURY SQUARE « « FLEET STREET, E.C. Copyrighted in America Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2014 https://archive.org/details/romanceofemergen5219rean PREFACE For the general reader to follow this story fully it may be well to call attention to a fact but little understood by the world at large, namely, that the " Society " which moves in our midst (numerically at almost a standstill as shown by the last religious census, but never more forcible than to-day in its known adherence to " first principles "), the Society of Friends, so often spoken of as " the Quakers," claims to do its part to purify commercial life by devoting a certain proportion of its members to all legitimate trades. Comparatively recently the Society announced amongst themselves that certain branches of business needed very special support, and an appeal was made to young men, some with university training, choosing their life-work to devote their powers and energies in the direction specified, and with marvellous results. England owes far more than is usually known to the " Quaker Firms " whose care — physical, moral and spiritual — of their employes forms a splendid example in our midst, an example which, if followed generally, would go far to settle the nation's problems so associated with overcrowding and underpaying. Isabel Reaney. " Resthaven," Blackheath. INDEX CHAPTER PAGE I. An Alarming Notice - . - - 9 II. A Way out of the Difficulty - - 14 III. An Important Decision - - - - 22 IV. The Bridegroom-Elect - - - - 35 V. How Gertrude Hastings came to leave Home 45 VI. Aubrey Rice's Secret - - - - 57 VII. The New Squire "At Home" - - 71 VIII. Sunset Illuminings .... 86 IX. Gertrude Hastings' Promise to her Pupil 95 X. An Angry Rector 105 XL Aubrey Rice in new Surroundings - 115 XII. A Bank Holiday Visitor - - - 124 XIII. A Lost Latch-key 132 XIV. A Grave Bargain 142 XV. "No Answer" 157 XV 1. The First "Caller" after the Wedding 170 XVIL " And IT WAS Night " - - - - 184 XVIII. The Squire makes His Will - - - 203 XIX. No. "75" 213 XX. Sick-room Confidences - - - - 221 XXI. A Story told to Sympathetic Ears - 232 viii Index CHAPTER PAGE XXII. A Sunday Service in the Convict Prison 242 XXIII. How "The Unexpected" Happened - 252 XXIV. The Farm Visitors - - - - 265 XXV. "Down ON His Luck" - - - - 277 XXVI. Eight Thousand Empty Chairs - - 293 XXVII. Down Eastwards 308 XXVIII. An Interview AT THE Manor - - 317 XXIX. Where had HE MET HIM BEFORE ? - - 324 XXX. Stanley Pritchard's Confession - - 341 XXXI. News FOR the Rector - - - - 351 XXXII. The Man with a Plate - - - - 361 XXXIII. These Days and Those - - - - 376 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY CHAPTER I AN ALARMING NOTICE The Misses Edgcombe were in a terrible difficulty. Never since the death of their father, the Squire — which took place some eight years previous to the events about to be narrated — had anything happened to move them in so grave a manner. "It is too dreadful to contemplate," exclaimed Miss Maria, the elder of the two ladies, but, by long custom, filling the place of the younger. **Oh, Matilda, what j^a// we do? My nerves are all in a twitter, and I feel it will take a life- time to get over the shock!" Pull yourself together, Maria, and remember we are on our dignity — very much so — and must think of a way out of this emergency as befits our position ! I admit I feel as much inclined to laugh as to cry," said Miss Matilda. I am thoroughly upset," and she closed a very small hand, and brought it down upon the table near lO THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY to which she was sitting with a force which quite explained how it happened that she took the lead in all things concerning home life, leaving her sister to take a second place in matters where great decisions had to be made. The cause of the trouble which so terribly excited these gently-born ladies — neither of whom would see fifty again — would be difficult to define without certain explanations. Let it be said then at once that these good women, cultured and refined to a degree, had from baby- hood — as accorded with the spirit of the times when they were children^ — been cared for and looked after in a way which left np room for self- reliance, or, for the matter of that, for freedom of thought or of action. In early days the high-class nurse had taught her little ladies " to play softly, taking care never to soil their pretty pinafores," or to move about quickly enough to put their hair out of curl. Then when the old-fashioned but most estimable governess reigned in place of the nurse, she had ruled with the same dictum. Her young pupils must be gentle at all times — never speak when with their elders unless spoken to ; learn all they could but never have an opinion of their own. It was not for real ladies to be self-assertive "—and so forth. When in due time the ''little ladies" of former days had grown into the very gentle AN ALARMING NOTICE and unobtrusive girls of a later period, and were presented at Court by their elderly aunt, Lady Chingfield — their mother having perforce excluded herself from all society (being, since the birth of her second daughter, a chronic invalid) — they took their places in the world of society in a colourless, indefinite sort of way, neither having an idea for which she could claim originality, both depending absolutely and utterly upon " dear papa'* on the one hand, or dear mamma " on the other, according to the merits of the occasion requiring counsel or advice. Neither of the two had been troubled by romances which are so inevitably associated with' youth. Perhaps their natural shyness and reserve placed a "no thoroughfare" for would-be wooers. It was an open secret that they were rich. The Squire had no ambition to marry his daughters, and Mrs. Edgcombe thought " they were best as they were," and when at length death was about to end her weary, suffering life, she even went so far as to make them promise never to leave their dear father." Nor did they ever dream of doing such a thing. They lived their even-flowing, unevent- ful lives with him in the quiet Manor House until he suddenly left them in full possession of the old home and the fifteen thousand a year 12 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY which went along with it. An accident in the hunting-field brought the Squire's life to its abrupt termination. His daughters, neither of whom had up to that date looked her age, seemed to grow older quickly, otherwise no outward change marked even this period of their lifetime. The pressure of business cares had never come upon these ladies of whom I write, even when bereft of both parents. John, the faith- ful butler, who had started life at Edgcombe Manor as page boy when the little daughters of the home were still in the nursery, had been for many years the Squire s confidential man, and when his master died he relieved the ladies of all worry concerning legal documents, inter- viewing the family lawyer then and upon many subsequent occasions on their behalf It was well he was able to do this, for with him — the faithful John — rested all the family history as concerned the late Squire's property and accounts, seeing the previous lawyer, of whom, at the time of the Squire's death, the present was barely a year or two the successor, had perished in the midst of much valuable property, the victim of a fire which had broken out in his city office. With this explanation before the reader, it is comparatively easy to state the cause of the Misses Edgcombe's great agitation upon the AN ALARMING NOTICE 13 morning alluded to in the opening of this chapter. John, the faithful butler, family servant, fac- totum, and confidential friend, had intimated in a well-worded letter addressed to both ladies, that seeing he wanted to settle down in life and make a home of his own, he must, with regret, and most respectfully beg to give a month's notice. Hoping the ladies w^ould find some one to take his place, he would like to leave their service on the forthcoming May i6th." CHAPTER II A WAY OUT OF THE DIFFICULTY With John's letter before them the Misses Edgcombe pathetically discussed their over- whelming trouble, if discussion it could be called when Miss Matilda ventured a remark to which Miss Maria would reply, " Indeed," Quite true." At length the younger sister rose and rang the bell. To the page boy who came in answer to the summons Miss Matilda said, " Ask John to be kind enough to step this way." " My dear Matilda, what are you doing ? " exclaimed Maria with excitement, visibly tremb- ling. "Could we not have sent him a little note and spared ourselves a painful interview?" We are only working in the dark while we know nothing of Johns plans," said Matilda, thoughtfully. Supposing he wants to marry Hughes, our maid, why should they not continue to live on here ? Not that I think he could be in love with Hughes without our knowing some- thing about it, but that is by way of suggestion. I am prepared to meet John half-way if we can arrive at a compromise." 14 A WAY OUT OF THE DIFFICULTY 1 5 " Certainly, Matilda," said Miss Maria, pen- sively. Something, now you mention it, might be done by way of compromise if only — " A knock at the door caused Miss Maria to stop abruptly. John quickly followed upon his knock, not waiting for the ''Come in" which Miss Matilda tried to give in her usual tones of dignified authority. He was a fine -looking man, about the average height, with an expansive forehead, and eyes which looked straight into the face of the one to whom he happened to be speaking. Like all men long accustomed to the position he occupied, he had instinctively caught the manners of the gentleman from those towards whom his ministrations of service invariably led him ; only in the lowered voice and the semi- bow with which he was accustomed to receive an order did he betray his calling. At the present moment he stood before the two ladies whose every wish it was his privilege to consider a command — his whole attitude a mute interrogation. What do you please to want ? " "We have sent for you, John," began Miss Matilda, in reference to your letter this morn- ing received." The lady spoke with a slight tremor in her voice, but otherwise her manner was dignified. 1 6 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY John looked nervous, but he bowed mutely and awaited further observation. ** Needless to say it gives us inexpressible pain," continued Miss Matilda, " to think for a moment of parting from an old servant whom we have at all times, and especially since our dear father's decease, so highly appreciated. And we are greatly surprised, never having even faintly thought of you as attached to any one. I have sent for you " (the we " was invariably dropped when referring to a matter which depended upon her own definite action as if to clear her sister from all responsibility), ** I have sent for you to see if there could not be some compromise : say we gave up certain rooms for your own occupation, when married, and you brought your wife to live under this roof? " John cleared his throat, and seemed anxious to interrupt the speaker at this point, but Miss Matilda went on steadily — "It is utterly impossible for us in our com- plete isolation from our relations — the few we have living — in what I may call our unprotected and most dependent position — it is quite impos- sible, as I was saying, to dispense with your valuable services. It would be more than either Miss Maria or myself could contemplate with serenity of mind. You could, I trust, make yourself happy under this roof, in spite A WAY OUT OF THE DIFFICULTY 1 7 of altered circumstances, if she did not object ? " " I have not explained," stammered John, his brow flushing as he looked Miss Matilda straight in the face — he had no wish to conceal anything, he was as straight and honest as the day, and no one was more sure of this than the lady to whom he directed his remarks — " I have not explained, ma'am, that at present I have no one in view. It is only my wish to settle down. If I don't do it now, I feel I never shall, and I would like to have a home of my own ! " " But surely, John, it would have been time enough to talk of leaving us when you had met with some one willing — willing to become your wife ! " Miss Matilda said, quickly, and her tone had a shade of relief in it, while her cheek flushed visibly. After all, it was intensely droll to be talking with the butler, John, about a supposed love affair. " I don't think I shall be long in finding some one," John said, quietly, as unmoved as if he were talking of engaging a servant for which there was a vacancy upon the staff. Then he added, thoughtfully, I do not suppose I should be hard to please, provided the some one I fix my mind upon is somewhere about my own age ; that will be what I mostly want. I have no thought to marry i8 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY a young wife. My fancy is for some one who will like pretty much to keep to the home I should offer her ; one that I could speak of as Abraham spoke of Sarah without a moment's hesitation, when asked where she was, 'Behold, in the tent ! ' I have a mind, ma'am, to take things leisurely in my old age, and this seems to me the best way to do it." Doubtless you are right, John," said Miss Matilda, " but you must see our side of the question. It is far more painful to us than could be possible under ordinary circumstances. We have been all our lives so dependent upon some one — it seems little short of a disaster to my sister and myself to think of your leaving us!" " Of course," said John, looking a little ner- vous, I am not that particular but what I could wait a few weeks, ma'am, for the matter of that ; so long as you accept my notice there is no real hurry, as — as I can be looking about, you see, for — for my wife." *'Then let it remain so for the present, John," said Miss Matilda, with heightened colour — the interview was costing her a good deal. Miss Maria and I would not, of course, like to stand in the way of your best interests, and we will think the matter over, and perhaps there will be a way out of the difficulty." Miss Matilda threw herself back in her chair A WAY OUT OF THE DIFFICULTY 1 9 and took up her needlework and John felt him- self dismissed. Scarcely had the door closed upon his retreating form than Miss Maria, who had maintained perfect silence during the inter- view, broke down completely in a fit of hysterical weeping. Control your feelings, sister," said Miss Matilda, her own lip trembling and her voice no longer firm. We are certainly passing under a cloud of sorrow, but we must bear up and maintain the dignity of our ancestry. Of course, things would have been quite different if John had not been here as long as we can remember — indeed, he seems our link with the past, a kind of pleasant memory associated with our dear parents' lifetime ; when he goes we shall have the feeling of starting life afresh, and it is late for us to be doing this ; and it might not have mattered at all if we had any friend or relative who could take his place and manage our business matters for us. John was trained by dear father, and knows how to do things his way. Why, we absolutely know nothing about the details of affairs ! Come, Maria, cease weeping and help me to think out what is best to be done." All this time the elder lady had continued her weeping and wailing, but gradually regaining self-control while listening to her sister s words. It was strange that neither of these two 20 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY gentlewomen, so burdened and bewildered by this unexpected blow, thought for a moment of charging the originator of the trouble with lack of consideration or selfishness. Perhaps it would have been better for them if they had. There is nothing so helpful in carrying us through specially trying circumstances as the inner consciousness that we are in some way badly treated or wronged by one whose injustice arouses righteous indignation. Who does not know the difference between a spirit broken by untoward circumstances and a spirit so roused to resentment of unmerited evil that it soars above all difficulties in its very deter- mination to overcome them ? The Misses Edgcombe, as the days passed on, could think and speak of nothing else but the impending evil of John's departure, and soon their nights became almost as restless and dis- turbed as their days, and the fact was visibly telling upon even Miss Matilda's health. May the i6th came and went and nothing more had been said or done in reference to the all-absorbing subject ; but the butler would occasionally make some remark relating to most trivial matters which conveyed the im- pression that he no longer regarded himself as a fixture at the Manor House. A broken cord in a Venetian blind belonging to the inner drawing-room had led one A WAY OUT OF THE DIFFICULTY 21 day to the remark to Miss Matilda Edgcombe, There is only one shop where I can get cords to suit these blinds. I have tried several, but Dalrymple's wear the best and last the longest. I will make a note of this in the general reference book, where I put down several items which I think you will find useful." One morning — it was early in June, a sultry, enervating day — when Miss Maria was suffering from one of her bad headaches, her sister came and sat down beside her, and, placing her hand upon her arm, said in a tremulous voice, Maria, I have thought of a way out of our difficulty." "About John, you mean?" said Miss Maria, and she sighed deeply. Yes, about John." "And pray what is it?" enquired Maria a little fretfully : so many plans had been thought out which subsequently came to nothing, this was doubtless only another such. Why," said Matilda, and she spoke with an awe in her tones suggestive of much disturbed feeling, while her pallid cheeks flushed bright crimson, either you or I must marry John." CHAPTER III AN IMPORTANT DECISION A FREQUENT visitor at Edgcombe Manor was Gertrude Hastings, the Rector's youngest daughter. She had chanced in her babyhood to have won the special notice of the Squire, and forthwith indulgences were granted her which had not been extended to either of her five sisters. She had by reason of these indulgences almost grown up upon the Manor property, having played about the grounds, under the eye of her nurse, when only a toddling mite of two or three, riding, when barely six, a shaggy pony which the Squire provided for her use, and long before her teens distinguishing herself by fearless exploits which stamped her character with marks of bravery, and gave her a reputation not likely to be forgotten. Later, during a brief sojourn in Brussels to give finish to the education which an up-to-date governess had most carefully conducted at home, Gertrude Hastings had been most sorely missed by her Manor House friends. The Squire was wont to say when she was a mere AN IMPORTANT DECISION. 23 child, if anything kept her at home for a few days, it seemed as if something were wanting in the Manor House : things fell flat. A merry voice, so free to prattle, was missing, and it was something of this, but with more definite pain about it, that the Misses Edgcombe had felt when Gertrude was away on the Continent. Her coming home for good" had been a day long looked forward to with pleasure, and the time which had elapsed since this event had taken place had served to strengthen the ties which bound these two lonely ladies to their young friend. It was scarcely strange that Gertrude Hastings should have been announced that day as a caller at the very moment when Miss Edgcombe had made the startling communica- tion to her sister that one of them must marry the butler John. She came springing into the room with all the buoyancy of step belonging to one of her sunny nature, looking so picturesque and fresh in her pretty summer garments and greeting the sisters with no little display of affection. This was the first time she had seen them since her return home after a visit of several weeks to the country house of one of her Brussels school- fellows. Gertrude Hastings had no pretensions to beauty. She was, to be distinctly accurate, a 24 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY plain girl. Her features were irregular and her expansive brow — which was clearly out of all proportion to the rest of her face — unduly in evidence. In spite of this, all who knew her best admitted her expression was such as to make everything else forgotten but the fact that she was simply charming, so vivacious, so fresh, so like a healthy breeze. She called the ladies of the Manor House *'Auntie," "Aunt Maria" and "Aunt Matilda'' respectively, and treated them to all her con- fidences. Indeed, it would seem more than strange to have kept back anything affecting her own life and happiness from the two ladies who were so closely associated With her earliest memories. *'Yes," she said, blushing rosy red, *'of course I am going to tell you every little bit about my engagement ! I wanted badly to write it, but it would have meant such an unreasonably long letter, and I like best to tell you, sitting as I do in this lovely chair, where I can look at you and see your unbounded pleasure when you hear about my hero ! " ''Is he fair or dark ?" queried Miss Maria, interrupting. I want to picture him while you speak ! " " Of course he will be very tall," said Miss Matilda. " I could not picture you with a lover who was very short and small ! " AN IMPORTANT DECISION 25 No, you are quite right, auntie. I shall want to look up to my husband in every sense and way," said Gertrude, warmly, ''and so I shall do. Aubrey is a little over six feet, as straight as a dart ; he is in the Volunteers, and looks quite the soldier ; he is fair — not ^00 fair, you know — with very curly hair, and* oh! such blue, blue eyes. I cannot tell you the shape of his mouth, for it is hidden by a full moustache ; but I am sure it is good-tempered, for Aubrey is so bright always, and he hasn't the tiniest twist of sulkiness in his nature! How do I know ? Why, just because I have seen him so constantly and under all circumstances, and he's just the same ! You know he has been staying in the house with me : he was recovering from a broken arm, and Lady Horrick would insist upon him coming to the Hall to be nursed. Of course he was able to be about just the same, but being his right arm, he was unfit for work. My old school friend, Ethel Horrick, seemed so much interested in Aubrey Rice that I quite took for granted they were very special friends until — well, the happy little secret dawned upon me one day, Aubrey was in love with me . . . Oh, I cannot tell you how the whole world changed to me when I knew this. I think I must have cared for him from the first moment we met, only I could not let myself think about it until he spoke to me, and then everything c 26 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY came with a rush. Lord Horrick wrote at once to papa, and he came down immediately to Moxdale Hall, and stayed with us for a few days. Aubrey will not be able to come and see us for some time, as he has had his holiday for the year." But what does your father say about it all.^^" enquired Miss Matilda, and there was an audible sigh. After all, it was very charming to see a young girl's enthusiasm about the man she loved ; but when people were more than twice her age everything would be very different, even supposing there could be a real lover in the question. Papa likes Aubrey," replied Gertrude. **In a way I think he is quite satisfied about every- thing, only he wishes he had better prospects. You see he is only a clerk " Only a clerk ! " exclaimed both ladies in tones of great surprise. How could they ever spare this dear girl to one of inferior or secondary position ? She was in every way so superior herself. Gertrude coloured, as she said warmly, Aubrey is well-born, and can boast even a better ancestry than we can. He has, I know, many years of plod before him, but we are both young and can afford to wait for our new home." How old is he, my dear?" said Miss Maria, AN IMPORTANT DECISION 27 growing much interested in the young man. It was quite a relief to both sisters to think a long engagement was probable : how could they spare Gertrude out of their lives ? He is just twenty-two," was the reply, and I, you know, was nineteen last October, so we could well make it a ten years' engage- ment ! " At this remark both the ladies laughed a little ; then Miss Matilda reddened as she thought of the butler John's desire to settle down quickly. ''It is so strange to think of you. Birdie, talking in this way," she said, rousing herself to speak, and addressing Gertrude by the pet name by which the sisters were very fond of calling her. *' You are such a child to be talking of a home of your own, however far distant." Then, moved by some strange im- pulse, Miss Matilda added, with a little nervous laugh, *• What will you say if I tell you that my sister and I are seriously contemplating being married — one of us, you know — I am not sure which?" *' Aunt Matilda, how funny you are ! " exclaimed Gertrude, jumping up from her seat and kissing the flushed cheek of the speaker. I could never think of you living anywhere else than here. Oh, it is too dreadful to imagine this dear old place without either of you!" 28 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ** Then, my dear, we must arrange to remain here and — and let this be our married home, my sister's or mine — not both of us married, you understand" — and Miss Matilda laughed. She was growing quite frivolous all of a sudden ! Well, auntie, let me be your bridesmaid — or Aunt Maria's, whichever it is to be," said Gertrude, quite enjoying the joke. So long as you do not leave Edgcombe Manor I will raise no objection ! " Another caller was announced, and lunch quickly followed. Miss Matilda had grown serious again, but her cheeks remained flushed, and there was an unusual brilliancy in her dark- grey eyes. That evening, when John came to the drawing-room to ask " if the ladies required anything more," Miss Matilda said, answering for both, We would like a word with you. Please come in and oblige us by taking a seat." Whereupon John subsided on the extreme edge of the nearest chair. Miss Maria had a sudden fit of coughing, which gave her sister time to collect her thoughts before plunging into the subject uppermost in her mind. When at length all was again quiet, she said, with heightened colour, and a nervous tremble in her voice. It is about your proposed marriage, John." AN IMPORTANT DECISION 29 " Yes, ma'am," said the one addressed, and the colour mounted to his own brow. "We have been much perplexed to find a way out of the difficulty which faces us when- ever we think of parting with — an old friend, for it is only in that light we can regard you ! " "You honour me in speaking of my poor services so highly," said John, his face shining with the pleasure the appreciative comment conveyed to his mind. "It is only as a friend we can think of you," continued Miss Matilda. " We forget you have occupied the position of actual service only in our home. You have grown to be, from your long residence here, quite as one of the family. Our good mother always felt grateful for your devotion to herself ; our excellent father trusted you as an equal, and we — we, his daughters, have always reposed the >greatest confidence in you. " You have always treated me with marked courtesy and kindness," observed John, as Miss Matilda paused. " You have deserved far more than we have shown," continued the speaker, every moment growing more nervous, and, in proof of this, we have a proposal to make you which will appear a little startling at first, but when you have well thought over it, as my sister and I have done, it will, I doubt not, seem less impossible." 30 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY An awkward pause followed this remark. Twice Miss Matilda made an effort to continue and each time unsuccessfully. At length John felt quite anxious to help the lady out with her proposition, and, little thinking what he was assisting her to say, he remarked as he rose from his seat and stepped towards the table against which Miss Matilda was sitting, Any suggestion you may please to make shall have my most earnest attention, ma'am. Can I say more ? " No, John," replied Miss Matilda, and she sighed as if she were overburdened with the responsibility of the proposal she was about to make. Then something suddenly struck her ; supposing in the few weeks which had passed since John's original notice was given he had found some one whom he would like to secure for his wife, waiting for the further development of his venture before making it known. Let us quite understand how matters are to-day," she said, nervously. Have you found any one yet to listen to your proposals ? " No one, ma'am," said John, quickly. I have in vain sought divine guidance in the matter. Of course I know it is a very impor- tant step, and must not be undertaken lightly, but I had quite expected before this to have had a ' leading' given me. Instead of which I feel like a man who has bought a picture frame AN IMPORTANT DECISION 31 and is trying to find something to put into it, but so far has searched hopelessly for anything at all suitable." " In that case," said Miss Matilda, looking much agitated, although she held herself with dignity, and her voice — always well-modulated and sweet — lost none of its calmness, '* our pro- posals are free to be made. But first let me assure you they are only suggestions, and you are quite at liberty to set them aside without even giving them a moment's consideration if they at all strike you as being — as being too difficult — perhaps formidable would be the better word — to be within reason." " I scarcely think any plan you ladies might suggest would strike me as being unreasonable," said honest John, quickly, adding, deferentially, "even if I did not quite fall in with it. Please let me hear what you have been so kindly thinking about in my interests. I feel it very good of you both, though it is more than in keeping with your unfailing acts of kindness to me in the past." This little speech gave Miss Matilda time to pluck up courage for the terrible announce- ment." Her manner was less agitated as she proceeded. " We know you are willing to meet us, if such a thing were possible, in the very trying matter of your leaving the Manor, and the proposal we 32 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY are about to put before you, while you are per- fectly at liberty to refuse it, I would remind you your doing so would give us infinitely more pain than any difficulty your accepting it could create." The expression on John's face was one of profound dismay. Whatever was coming, Miss Matilda had contrived to put such meaning in her voice and words that she had prepared the way for a shock. He awaited the denouement with the eagerness of a child about to be taken into confidence over some appalling secret. At length it came. Miss Matilda had shifted her position slightly, pushing her chair a little further from the table; now she rose, and placing her right hand on a low bookcase (which stood within reach) to steady herself, she said, speaking slowly and distinctly, My sister and I propose you should change your position in this house. Instead of continuing a servant here, we would have you become the master, and this can only be done by your consenting to marry one of us ! " Every particle of colour forsook John's cheek as he grasped the meaning of Miss Matilda's speech. In vain he tried to find either voice or words wherewith to answer. In the pause which followed. Miss Matilda said, with what was meant to be a compassionate smile, one which John the butler could never have claimed AN IMPORTANT DECISION 33 but which John the friend was fully entitled to, " Be perfectly free to choose between us. Your choice, whatever it may be, will satisfy us both. We sisters will not be separated, and our trusted friend will have the right to manage the affairs of the Manor, which hitherto he has done most satisfactorily out of goodwill to our late dear father and to us ! " " Your condescension amazes me ! " exclaimed John, at last finding his voice. Surely," he added, looking down so as not to encounter Miss Matilda's glance, ''you honour me too much in such a proposal. Still — still, maybe things might be adjusted if you're not afraid of what the world would say." John, we have faced that question amongst others" — it was Miss Maria who spoke this time, feeling it was her bounden duty to sup- port her sister actively as well as passively — and do understand the only thing we are afraid of is losing your presence from our home!" As Miss Maria paused John looked up, a flush upon his pallid face. Advancing a step or two towards the lady who had just spoken, he said, in subdued tones, as if asking a favour of the one addressed, at the same time stating a fact which he considered settled once and for all, Then please, ma'am, you'll not take it amiss, I hope, if I make my choice of Miss 34 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Matilda, and be^ you to allow me to take the honourable position of being your brother-in- law!" " You have chosen wisely, John," said Miss Maria, extending her hand to him. " I am sure, by-and-bye, when we get accustomed to changes, we shall be a very happy trio." CHAPTER IV THE BRIDEGROOM ELECT The news of the approaching marriage at the Manor House caused, as may be imagined, a great deal of gossip. There was scarcely a home for miles round where Miss Matilda Edgcombe's plans were not discussed ; perhaps they were not so much her own plans as the plans which others (as they passed the news from lip to • mouth) gathered around the one momentous fact of the forthcoming wedding. In reality, Miss Matilda Edgcombe had few plans. Even great events, be they earthquake shocks or violent thunderstorms, do not give a new nature to the ground upheaved or the tree lashed with the fury of the downpour — the ground is still the ground and the tree the tree. Miss Matilda Edgcombe, in spite of her romantic, almost sensational, engagement, was Miss Matilda Edgcombe still — the same gentle- natured, would - be - irresponsible lady whose somewhat colourless life glided on from day to day with rare, and for the most part most exceptional outbursts of energy, which proved the placid character had, somewhere below the 35 36 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY surface, hidden forces well to be reckoned with. To the few who ventured to offer congratula- tions on the world-phrased "happy event" (which had been freely recorded in the columns of the local papers) Miss Matilda said very little, and that little was strangely to the point. The marriage would mean but few changes, for John had always filled the place of a trusted friend since dear father's death left them so dependent," and so forth. To the relatives — none nearer than second cousins, of whom the sisters had seen next to nothing for some years past — when angry letters came with cruel criticism and scarcely less cruel remonstrance, the bride elect remained passively indifferent. " Many thanks for your kind letter," she wrote to one who had been even more bitter and outspoken than the rest. I am sure your intentions are good, but as to your advice I am afraid, as I did not ask for it, I must get you to allow me to return it to you intact," and she subscribed herself in that instance, Yours ever gratefully and obliged," which forever settled the matter of further interference from that direction. At this time but few outward changes had taken place. John insisted upon continuing his regular work. It would be inconvenient, to THE BRIDEGROOM ELECT 37 say nothing about its being inadvisable, to place another man in his position while he remained in the chrysalis stage of being late servant and future master of Edgcombe Manor House ; and as to going away for the time being, that was equally out of the question, for what would the ladies be able to do without him ? " So John Butler — for such was his real name — who, on and after the loth of the forthcoming October, was to be known as John Butler- Edgcombe (thus reversing the order of mar- riages in general in the matter of exchange of name) practically went on his way as aforetime. It was his own special privilege to wait upon "the ladies" at their meals — this he continued to do. Towards evening it had ever been his habit to come 'to the drawing-room the last thing to ask for any further orders before retiring for the night. He did so still; only now it was his wont to linger. He had many things to talk about, and from discussing the affairs of the house John would branch off to politics — he was in his way a good politician, well read, and with a well-balanced mind and sound judgment. Once the Misses Edgcombe had felt no interest in matters to which John had from his youth given keen attention, but to-day one of them at least had become anxious to know more of what was going on in the world, and John did his best to enlighten her. 38 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY He had his own special way of looking at things, a way which had doubtless grow^n out of the conditions of his life. He was a farmer's youngest son, claiming a whole ancestry of tillers of the soil as his forebears. He came of a stock which had lived nine months of every twelve in the open air — men for the most part of clean, healthy lives, who developed their muscles in breaking up the land which they afterwards cultivated, and, with but little book-lore, learnt great and beautiful lessons from Nature. Up with the dawn and early to rest— the main anxiety of their very simple and common- place existence the crops and the weather ; men whose minds had never served an apprentice- ship to bodies enfeebled by luxurious living, or crippled and contracted by the crowded con- ditions of city life — the physical, then as now, so largely responsible for the mental and moral — John Butler had come of a good old stock, and he was justly proud of the fact. The womenkind, too, of his ancestry belonged to a race to whom fashion and frivolity were unknown quantities. Healthy in mind as in body, thrifty proclivities and habits of industry were as much a part of their possessions as were the homesteads and acres of farm land the lawful heritage of their men-folk. When quite young John Butler became page- boy at Edgcombe Manor House. It had been THE BRIDEGROOM ELECT 39 his dying mother's wish that he should be spared the roughing it " which had been the portion of his elder brothers. He was her baby, and, good soul, inasmuch as her own healthy constitution had felt the strain of bearing fifteen sons and daughters, besides attending to the dairy and carrying poultry and €ggs to market and doing the hundred and one things expected in those days of a farmer's wife, she "had a mind" to let young John ''take things a bit easy." He was a " better scholar" than the rest of the lads (in those days, of course, the girls were out of the reckon where scholastic comparisons were made), and ''she could see him quite well shape into the position of house servant at the Squire's until he would become an honour to the family, who would, of course, be proud to have one of their kith and kin brought up among gentlefolks. Who could tell ? maybe John would grow into a sort of gentleman himself one day." Coming from just such a country home, the son of just such parents as he called his own, John Butler started with advantages which did him good service in after life. He had a capacity for improvement, without which no one makes real mental or moral progress. He had escaped the various ills which the flesh of ordinary in-door servants is heir to — resenting imaginary wrongs, while regarding invariably 40 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY those in authority as the secret enemies of those who served. He had never been self- assertive, and much less fawning" or ''curry- ing favour." John Butler had been all his life open-hearted, clear and clean-minded, fresh and free in expressing opinions which, however strongly held, never became fossilized into prejudices. His sympathy lay very largely with the working classes ; but he had lived so many years amongst "gentlefolks" (as he would explain, if questioned upon his views) that he regarded their ways and wants from quite a different standpoint than he probably would have done had he always lived amid his own class as one of themselves. Hence, in talking one evening to Miss Matilda about the rights of a certain political problem at that time engrossing much public attention, he observed, You will see that the rich do well to consider the needs of the poor, for w^hatever benefits and makes better the majority, benefits and blesses the world at large." And Miss Matilda had rejoined simply, " Yes, of course, it must be so," and had visions of a family in the village whose insanitary home had often beguiled a fever into the district, making other homes pay the penalty of their wrong-doings. She thought of the THE BRIDEGROOM ELECT 41 desperate effort which had been made to get the father and mother into a more thrifty life — clothes, food, and unlimited supervision on the Rector's part making a choice opportunity for reform — but only to prove a hopeless failure. Would this be so politically ? Would the rich do their best to influence and uplift the poor, and would it always be failure ? always be disappointment ? Honest John Butler thought Miss Matilda very good to let him talk to her as he did. He was continually assuring himself that the beauty of her soul was to be seen in her great humility : for did she not listen to his various observations as one awaiting information, and not as one whose superior education treated his opinions at a discount if not with scorn — as might have been the case? But then Miss Matilda Edgcombe would have to be some one else, and he, John Butler, would not be making plans for the future, to be put in force when his position as master of the Manor House gave him the right to rule and regulate the affairs of the home and its surroundings. Now, while John Butler admired Miss Matilda Edgcombe's magnitude of mind in conversing with him as an equal, he never for a moment lost sight of the fact that she had possessions which he lacked. She could claim the heritage of an ancestry which had thought D 42 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY with enlightened mind while living the life of cultured ease ; at the same time he was justly- proud of his own ancestors and the heritage of honest, healthful toil to which he had himself been born. And so the summer passed. Quaintly and quietly John accepted the responsibilities of his new position. During the day, as we have said, he served with faithful service the two ladies for whose every want it had been his custom for so many years to care. Towards evening he found his way — each night a little earlier — to the drawing-room to spend the time at his disposal in conversation, varied by a game of chess, the Squire having initiated him in the art of chess-playing as far back as when he was a page-boy. At ten o'clock, by the unalterable law of habit, the house retired to rest, after prayers had been read by Miss Maria, all the servants being present. At this function John would take the seat which had been his for so many years — his chair in a line with the house- hold staff, but placed by itself. The Squire had suggested this plan to help his butler to maintain the dignity due to his position. To- day John liked best to let things remain as they were." He would not anticipate his rights. At length the lOth of October dawned. This was the wedding-day. An hour s talk had THE BRIDEGROOM ELECT 43 served to plan out all details. The brougham would take the two sisters and John to church, then, the service over, would take John and one sister to the railway station. Miss Maria would be guest at the Rectory during the honeymoon, for, although the Rector most emphatically disapproved of the marriage, showing that disapproval by insisting that Gertrude discontinued for the present all intercourse at the Manor House, he still wished to stand well in the neighbourhood, and there- fore did what he thought his parishioners might deem a kindly thing under these very special circumstances. The bride and bridegroom were to spend a brief week at Brighton. It seemed right to go away ; other people followed this course, hence it would be expected of them ; otherwise both would have preferred to let matters go on as usual at the Manor House, and have no break to chronicle in their lives — no break, but a change. Very nervous and agitated both sisters looked when at length, a few moments before eleven o'clock, the gong sounded — a usual signal to say the carriage was at the door. " You will not forget to take your beef tea every morning at eleven, Maria," said Matilda as she kissed the faded cheek of her elder sister; and do let Gertrude sleep in the chair-bed in 44 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY your room if you feel it lonely at the Rectory. You will find your cough mixture in your dressing-bag ; I thought it would be safest there." You will match that shade of silk for me at Brighton," said Miss Maria, whose tear-dimmed eyes showed all too plainly how much she was feeling the parting from her sister. " They say the clear air of Brighton is so excellent for shading silks!" By this time they were on the broad stair- case descending to the hall below. John stood awaiting them, hat in hand. He opened the brougham door for them, as he had done for many a long year, so standing as to guard their draperies from coming in contact with the wheel. As he placed a light rug over the knees of the two, Miss Matilda said, in a voice which shook with suppressed feeling, You must come inside to-day, John ! " To which he made quiet answer — Not ingoing' to church. I will take my place, please, as usual on the box now. Afterwards I will come inside if you are good enough to invite me ! " And so it happened that one of the many strange things talked about that day was how the bridegroom sat on the box-seat of the brougham which took his bride to church. CHAPTER V HOW GERTRUDE CAME TO LEAVE HOME Gertrude Hastings suffered a great loss when forbidden by her parents to continue her visits to the Manor House. ''You understand me, Gertrude," the Rector had said with authority, " I mean to be obeyed in this matter. I consider, in my position here, it is a very 'legitimate stand to take against what I believe to be Matilda Edgcombe's gross blunder. What right has she to lower the dignity of a family which can trace its ancestry back to the time of William the Conqueror, by contracting a marriage with one who has occupied the position of a servant in the house- hold ? The idea is preposterous. Indeed, I go further and say it is simply insanity of a most hopeless kind, and nothing on earth can justify the step ! " But why, if you think all this, papa," said Gertrude, tearfully, '' why do you not go and persuade Aunt Matilda to reconsider what she is doing? If it is so very wicked, surely, as the clergyman of the parish, it is for you to point 45 46 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY out the fact, and — and — lead poor auntie to repentance ? " Gertrude had spoken with spirit in spite of her tears. It must be admitted it had come to her as a great shock the announcement of Miss Matilda Edgcombe's engagement, but such was her faith in that good woman that she could only allow she had every right to do what she believed to be best, and if such were her decision, then it left no room for argument or dispute. Hence Gertrude had accepted the fact, although regretfully, and as far as her own mind was concerned, treasured no irritable or unpleasant thought about the matter. **Why do I not discuss the question with Matilda Edgcombe?" said the Rector, hotly. Simply for the same reason that I should never dream of going to Colney Hatch to argue a point with one of the lunatics there. The discussion would be all on one side. Matilda Edgcombe is, I tell you, insane in the matter of her engagement, and as obstinate as a mule when she has once made up her mind to a thing. It would be sheer waste of time to approach the subject further than I have done. This makes it all the more necessary for me to put my foot down where I have the right to do so, and that is in regard to your visiting the Manor House as hitherto. I object to it, Ger- trude, in toto, and having said that, as you have HOW GERTRUDE CAME TO LEAVE HOME 47 learnt your catechism and know the fifth com- mandment, I do not expect to hear a word by way of demur or contradiction from yourself! " But, papa, they have been so good to me always," said Gertrude, brushing her tears away and speaking very earnestly. From a tiny tot their loving thought and care have been just like summer sunshine to me." Bosh ! " interrupted the indignant Rector. " What a foolish thing to say, Gertrude, inferring that life at home was like winter dulness. I tell you it is mere sentiment, and you must eliminate it at once from your mind. Of course the Misses Edgcombe were kind to you. Do you think it was nothing to them to have a bright, young creature like yourself flitting backwards and forwards ? Well, they can do without you now. They will have John the butler to entertain them. Bah ! Think of ^/^a^ man in a position to call a daughter of mine ' my dear,' or in any way to play the host to her!" Still, Gertrude stood her ground. The tear- ful mood- had passed, and she looked as one suffering wrong, appealing not to sympathy but to justice. Her face was flushed ; her eyes sparkled. There will, I know, be many to condemn Aunt Matilda's action," she said, thoughtfully, *'and most of these will hear nothing at all about 48 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY her reasons ; but, papa, they will not be real friends of any value. I mean they have so few real friends ; now, I am a real friend, and that is why I feel it would be most mean and despicable to stay away just because Aunt Matilda chose to do something which other people said she should not do. It seems to me so unjust to her to leave her all to herself just now ! " "My dear Gertrude," exclaimed the Rector, laughing, ''you are a dear little innocent, and it is quite right for you to put on these pretty airs and graces. I have not the slightest objec- tion to your doing so, but, you understand, I mxan to be obeyed. I do not forbid your calling occasionally at the Manor House with your mother, but I do forbid your remaining on the friendly footing which has hitherto existed. Why, bless my soul, you have pretty well lived at the Manor House all your life. I think it is time for you to devote yourself to home and its duties. There, you must leave me now, for I have my Sunday morning sermon to write." And Gertrude withdrew from her father's study, a little hurt, a good deal angry, and with a mind which had aged perceptibly during that painful interview. From that day Gertrude Hastings ceased to be the thoughtless, laughter-loving girl. Life had suddenly grown very serious to her. No HOW GERTRUDE CAME TO LEAVE HOME 49 one heard her complain, but all at home were conscious that she was in some way changed. Her mother thought her engagement with Aubrey Rice was giving her a sense of responsi- bility which checked her usually high spirits. Her father said it was time for her to settle down ; she had always been more or less of a butterfly. He liked girls of her age to become staid — and so forth. Strangely enough, no one associated her low spirits with the severe strain which the Rector had imposed upon her in bidding her absent herself entirely from the Manor House. Thus the time had passed ushering in the wedding day. The Rector had most magnani- mously consented, as we have seen, to marry the two whose coming together he so entirely disapproved of Miss Maria's visit had put the Rectory in a pleasant little bustle. No one could quite forget that they were entertaining Miss Edgcombe of Edgcombe Manor House- Gertrude excepted. She, poor girl, regained for the time being her lost youth in devoting herself to Aunt Maria," and accompanying her to and fro to prepare the bride s home for her reception. All too soon this delightful break in her — at that time — weird existence came to an end. The Manor House had received its new master, and in the very act became forbidden ground to Gertrude Hastings. 50 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY It is difficult to explain by what rule the Rector found peace to his own conscience in sacrificing his daughters happiness. Mrs. Hastings did venture more than once to plead for less stringent measures, but with no avail. Meanwhile Gertrude busied herself about the house in a most exemplary manner. At the time of which we write the cultured classes thought their womenkind at their best when most domesticated. Such as could afford to leave the household matters in the hands of servants would devote every available activity and healthy energy of mind and body to artistic needlework, varying the day's employ- ment by arranging flowers and dusting some well-preserved old china. For years Gertrude Hastings^ sisters had lived this kind of life, and she herself had only been spared it by her constant visits to the Manor House. When these ceased she, not unnaturally, found great difficulty in settling down to the uneventful every-day-alike life at the Rectory. I wish I just happened to be Nellie Moore, the draper's daughter, and not Miss Gertrude Hastings of the Rectory," exclaimed Gertrude one morning early in January, as she came home after going down to the parish with her father. How lovely it must be to be quite free — absolutely independent ; the social HOW GERTRUDE CAME TO LEAVE HOME 5 I fetters which bind us so firmly to an aimless life at home actually broken — snapped in two ! " How would it help you to be Nellie Moore ? " enquired her eldest sister, not lifting- her eyes from the work which she held in her hand. " Oh," said Gertrude, " I have had the most delightful account of Nellie Moore's new depar- ture in life. She grew tired of millinery, and has obtained a situation at the Hill Farm as nursery governess. She has quite a short day there, and earns twelve pounds a year for pocket money. The children are positively charming, Mrs Moore says, and Nellie is per- fectly happy ! " And you v/ould like to go out as a ' nursery governess'?" enquired Jane Hastings, and this time she eyed Gertrude carefully. '*Of course I would," exclaimed the one addressed. ''It would mean settled occupation for one thing, and for another I should be earning some golden guineas to expend in any way I thought best." ''You forget you are a lady, born and bred," exclaimed Jane, putting a very dainty little hand to her mouth to hide a gape. " Ladies do not earn golden guineas for pocket money ; that privilege is some compensation to our less for- tunate sisters, who are born in a position which is socially far beneath our own." 52 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY I don't see what need they have of compen- sation," exclaimed Gertrude with warmth. They are at least born in a station in life where work is admitted. I used to envy Nellie as I saw her twirling those bits of finery into pretty knots and bows, and wonder at the good fate which always brought them to the right spot on the bonnet or hat she happened to be trimming at the time. I envy her much more now she is engaged in teaching those little farm children ! " " Gertrude, your engagement with Aubrey Rice is spoiling you," said Jane. A year ago you would have found it impossible to talk as you are doing now. As the promised wife of a city clerk — " I am thinking it is awfully hard upon a man for a girl to sit down idly and let her future husband do all the uphill work of planting the home he wants her to share with him," said Gertrude, brightly. " I would fain take my fair division in the effort. Why not? The mere thought of doing this gives some dignity to life, which is almost unendurable in its enforced idleness to-day." Silly child, you talk like a book by a very secondary writer," said Jane Hastings in a tone of severe criticism. " How can you compare Nellie Moore's position to your own .'^ You are in a cultured home, mistress of your own time HOW GERTRUDE CAME TO LEAVE HOME 53 and actions, with unlimited opportunities of enjoyment one way or another. My dear girl, do not let father or mother hear you speak in the way you have just done. I am sure it would annoy them extremely." Jane thought exactly what she spoke at the time, and yet, in a few weeks from that day, she was herself pleading earnestly with the Rector to gratify Gertrude's intense desire, and allow her to leave home for a while. I am sure she will only fret at home, father," this wise sister said, very seriously. **You have forbidden her the Manor House on the old terms, and she finds it so difficult to employ the time on her hands now. It surely could not hurt her in the end to see a little of life in the' capacity she is so anxious to fill as governess or companion. Remember, you have already consented to her engagement with a city clerk. Can there be any harm in allowing her the practical training which will fit her for a poor man's wife ? " You forget, Jane," said the Rector, quietly, " Aubrey Rice is no mere ordinary clerk. He has great expectations from some of his relatives. Although himself a churchman, he comes from a good old Quaker ancestry, and many of his people are to-day amongst the most cultured in the land — I have Lord Horrick's word for this — while at the same time associated with that. 54 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY prosperity in their various callings which means wealth. I expect Gertrude will be the wife of a rich man. The day will come — and, I doubt not, speedily — when Aubrey will be able to give up his present employment and become a country gentleman. He has the making of the country squire in him — he can ride and drive and shoot as well as any man I know of his age. The marvel to me is that his father was satisfied to send him straight from Marlboro' into an insur- ance office without letting him go to the 'Varsity, but then he was a poor man himself — a country lawyer with limited success and crude notions. He died quite a young man, from all I can hear, and Aubrey very early became the main support of his widowed mother." I expect he will be as staid as old times," said Jane, appreciatively, *'when he and Gertrude settle down in a home of their own, but mean- while, father, do you not think it would be wise to let Birdie take up teaching for a while ? " Jane was the only one at the Rectory who ever used the Manor House pet name for Gertrude. Possibly she did this purposely at that moment, for the Rector winced, reminded all at once of the great trial which had befallen Gertrude since Miss Matilda's marriage had made it inadvisable for her to visit her old friends as aforetime. He was there and then a little softened, and HOW GERTRUDE CAME TO LEAVE HOME 55 when an hour or two later the family doctor looked in because happening to be passing," and said, carelessly enough, but evidently with intention, I think, Rector, Miss Gertrude needs a change. Why don't you let her follow her pet hobby for a time ? Get her into a nice family as companion t-o an only daughter, or governess to young children, and it will do her all the good in the world ! She is moping and out of spirits altogether, and of course it will tell upon her general health. Mind you, I don't say you were wrong in keeping her from the Manor House, but you have taken away her occupation, and, in justice to herself, you should not stand out if she has a mind to follow her bent in, another direction." The Rector made answer by writing down hurriedly upon a half sheet of paper the follow- ing advertisement, which he read out to Dr. Maynard in a tone which was more aggressive than genial : — "Wanted, by a Clergyman's daughter, a post in a family of culture either as Companion or Governess to young children. A pleasant home and occupation desired. Salary of no importance. Apply by letter only to G. H., Times Office." **Just the thing!" exclaimed Dr. Maynard, gleefully. He was fond of Gertrude, and felt extremely for her under the Rector's severe rule. Now we will see how many cultured 56 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY homes open their doors to your daughter! Allow me to drop the letter in the post; I shall be passing and it will save time." Umph ! " said the Rector, smiling ; not a bad idea,' Maynard, for, should her mother raise any objection, I could put the responsibility on your shoulders." And that is how it happened that Gertrude Hastings a few days later found herself in the very exciting position of having to choose between the various homes offered to her in answer to the Times advertisement. She felt much drawn to one — companion to a little girl of ten, blind from her birth and very delicate. No teaching would be required, as a teacher from the Blind School near came daily for a few hours ; but when upon enquiry it was found that the father of the little girl was a tradesman, the Rector absolutely opposed his daughter's acceptance of the engagement. "No, no," he said, gravely, '*we must draw the line somewhere. I can allow no associations with Trade. It would at once become a family disgrace. It is bad enough as it is that a daughter of mine should be * in employment.' " Hence Gertrude had to give up the blind girl and make another selection. CHAPTER VI AUBREY rice's SECRET A SWEET-FACED woman, faded and worn to preternatural thinness, stood on a doorstep of a pretty suburban villa, leisurely searching in her pocket for a latch-key. Her bearing was that of a perfect lady ; her movements were full of that indescribable grace which denotes certain culture and courtesy, although everything was a little suggestive of feebleness and age. Suddenly some one joined her with a buoyantly uttered Well, mother ! " And th^n the old lady's face literally beamed with happiness as, placing her ungloved hand on his arm, she said with animation, My son Aubrey, what joy to see thee ! I have been to meet thy brother Harold, and the train was late, but he did not come. He will be here to-morrow, dost thou not think ? " Surely, mother," was the reply, spoken cheerfully, if not hopefully. Let us get some tea now. You look as if you wanted yours, and I am sure I do mine." By this time Aubrey Rice had opened the door with his own latch-key, and he and his E 57 58 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY mother had passed into the little sitting-room which lay to the right of the small hall. The table was set for tea, a bright fire burnt in the grate, and the room was lighted by a lamp which hung from the ceiling. The gentle old lady who had greeted her son so warmly threw off her shawl as if it were quite a relief to be free from it, and untied her bonnet strings, seating herself in an arm-chair by the fire. Up to this chair Aubrey moved a small table, and very quietly placed upon it a cup of tea, bread and butter, and a little pre- served fruit. An elderly servant had brought in the teapot through a doorway leading from the kitchen. " Now, sweet mother, eat away," Aubrey Rice said cheerfully, as he spread out the tempting meal upon the little table. " I want to see how soon you can finish, that we may have a nice cosy time together before I get to my work." " I do not feel just inclined for food," said the old lady, with a sigh. Thou seest, dear, I have had such a disappointment in not finding thy brother Harold in the train. But he will come to-morrow." " Surely, surely," replied her son, as he moved off to the table where his own more substantial tea was awaiting him. After a little while, having well eaten, and noticing that his AUBREY rice's SECRET 59 mother s food was still untasted, he opened the door leading into the kitchen. Sarah ! " he called to the elderly servant, who was quick to come, **just look after your mistress for a few minutes, and coax her to take some tea. I suppose no letters have come for me since the morning ? " this in an undertone. **Oh yes, sir, I forgot," exclaimed Sarah, diving into the depths of an old-fashioned pocket, " this one came at noon." " Thank you for taking care of it," said Aubrey Rice as he took possession of the letter in question and hastened from the room. He was quick to ascend the pretty carpeted stair- case, and to find his way to a small and simply furnished room which he called his "den." A lounge chair, a bookcase well filled with books in substantial binding, a small square table with a leg at each corner — hence firm in its footing— (upon which were placed a writing-case and inkstand), an old-fashioned high cupboard, which by touching a spring let down into a bed — this fairly describes the furniture in detail. The room communicated with another of much larger dimensions — indeed, one was in- tended to be the dressing-room to the other. The apartment into which Aubrey s had access was his mother's sleeping room. For years it had been his habit to leave the intervening door partly open at night that he might be quick to 6d the romance of an emergency hear if his mother were restless, and prompt to urge her to return to her pillow for a few hours longer if she rose too early, eager to be up and dressed. Throwing himself into his comfortable lounge chair — after lighting a small gas fire which stood in the grate, and a miniature lamp hang- ing over the mantelpiece — Aubrey Rice broke the seal of the letter which he had held firmly all the time in his left hand. He was soon deep in its contents. Midway he paused, and striking his hand upon his knee exclaimed, By Jove, but isn't this plucky of Gertrude ! Oh, if I could only explain it to mother, how it would please her ! " He read the sentence which had called forth this remark over again — I know I have something in me better than a life of complete ease calls forth, with perplex- ing wool-work designs the nearest approach to toil. I want to be spending my life more usefully than working patterns on canvas. I could do that if I chanced to be an invalid, but I am strong, and long for real work. What can hurt any one in good, honest labour ? I am quite sure it is the enforced idleness (like mine has become since I was cut off from the Manor House) which destroys and spoils our existence just as the caterpillars eat holes in the rose leaves until the roses are not worth gathering. AUBREY rice's SECRET 6i I told papa the other day I wished he would sit in our pew and let me go into the pulpit and preach a little sermon to parents who, through mistaken kindness, were afraid to let their daughters do any work — I do not mean play- work, but real work. I am telling you all this to prepare you for what has actually taken place. I am going to be nursery governess to two little girls belonging to a clergyman's family. I am to have fifteen pounds a year as my salary — a month's holiday in the summer and three weeks at Christmas — " It was almost an hour afterwards when Aubrey joined his mother in the little sitting- room. Sarah had cleared away the tea-things and removed her mistress's outdoor garments. Seen without her bonnet, Mrs. Rice looked fully the Quaker lady that she was. Her neat, frilled cap, close-fitting to the face ; her silken gown, ample in its folds, but nowhere long enough to touch the ground ; the white mull muslin kerchief over her shoulders, all were tokens of her being a Friend. Aubrey's arrival was the signal for Sarah to withdraw. The old lady sat in her arm-chair gazing into the fire ; a dreamy look was upon her face. She noticed her son's entrance in the room, but until he had actually taken his seat beside her, lifting one of her hands — such little hands too — and holding 62 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY it in both of his, she did not attempt to speak. Then she talked as if continuing a conversation which had been interrupted — He wrote so cheerfully ; he was having such a happy time with young Lord Horrick, but of course he would spend Christmas with us ; of course he would, dear boy. How could we spend ours without him ? And then, you see, he told me by which train he came, and I went so glad to meet him, but alas ! he was not there. I thought I had made a mistake, so I met the next train and the next ; why, Aubrey, I am always meeting trains and he has not come yet! He will ; he must come soon. To-morrow, by the early train, perhaps ? Oh, Aubrey, thou wilt wake betimes and call me, my son ? I must be there before the train is signalled." ■ ' I will be very sure to call you, mother dear," said Aubrey, fondly stroking the hand he clasped so firmly, ''but," he added, "what would you like to do now before Sarah helps you to bed, dear ? May I read to you, or shall I sing one of your favourite songs " "No, no, lad," said the old lady, softly, "I'm over-tired just now, and thou hast work to do. I'll hie me to bed lest I should over-sleep me in the morn, and Harold's train come in and his mother not be there." " But, dearest, I have something I want to tell you," said Aubrey, speaking slowly. " I have AUBREY rice's SECRET 63 waited long to tell you some news you should have been the very first to hear, only your mind was filled with busy thoughts about Harold. But come, you could listen to-night, surely. Will you try, just for my sake ? " No, no," said the old lady, rising with dignity, I cannot, must not give my thoughts to other things lest I am late in meeting Harold's train. When he is safely home I will sit, and sit with him beside me, and thou shalt tell me all thy news. Good night, my son. God spare both me and thee to meet in the morning light ! " Aubrey had risen when his mother did, and now he stooped over her with tender fondness, and kissed again and again her faded cheek. She made no response, her thoughts being fully engrossed. Then Sarah was summoned, and the old lady led gently out of the room to bed. Soon, when he heard the servant return to the kitchen, Aubrey turned the lamp out in the sitting-room, locked up the front door for the night, and took himself off to his den." He had a letter to write, one he had long wished to get off his mind, but again and again it had been delayed. Still, the moment had come when to remain silent would mean almost to deceive. It was more than hopeless to get his mother's attention. How many, many times 64 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY the scene of to-night had been repeated. Indeed, how little variety there was in his daily home-coming, and what took place immediately afterwards ! How often it happened that he found his mother on the doorstep trying to let herself in with her latch-key ! How like one day was to another in the experience about the evening meal ! His efforts to get her to eat were usually baffled. It was the faithful servant Sarah who was generally called in to coax her mistress to take food," and invariably it was when trying to bring some other subject before her that the old lady pleaded weariness, and moved off to bed. And yet, Aubrey Rice had been engaged over six months to Gertrude Hastings, and he had never yet had the courage to tell her that the mother of whom he had always spoken so tenderly was a harmless lunatic. To-night it must be done. Gertrude had shown herself to be a girl of great pluck. The story of her own plans revealed her in an altogether new character. She was not only the fascinating, light-hearted girl whose love it had been his good fortune to win, but she was a woman of courageous spirit, preferring work to idleness, determined to live as far as possible up to her own conviction of what a useful life should be. AUBREY rice's SECRET 65 By what right did he withhold the pathetic facts which were so closely interwoven with his own home-life ? Hence it happened that the next day but one Gertrude Hastings received a letter which filled her heart with sympathy of a kind never before awakened, and caused her to think more highly than ever of her hero-lover. She had known from the first of her acquaintance with him, from the fi-iends at whose house they met, of Aubrey Rice's unselfish and self-sacrificing life at home ; but no word had been whispered in reference to the mother to whom he was so devoted, beyond the fact of her being an invalid. " Forgive me, Gertrude," the letter ran, if I have kept back from you what it was more than your right 'to know, thinking of the fact from the world's point of view. I have been silent, only awaiting a fitting time to speak, yet each week feeling less inclined to burden my darling with an unhappy secret which cannot but throw my own life in shadow. *' Let me tell you a story which goes back five years — -at least, it was five years on the 24th of December last. My poor father had been dead about six months, and my elder brother Harold and I had determined to devote our lives to our dear mother by giving all our leisure hours — we were both insurance office clerks — to study, 66 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY which would help us eventually, either by teaching or in literary work, to add to the income which was her chief support (chief but not absolute, for my poor father had bought her an annuity of /^loo a year). Harold had formed a great friendship when at Marlborough with Guy Manville, Lord Horrick's second son, who is, as you know, abroad, and wishing to consult him in reference to some London University examinations which he was anxious to work up for, he begged a couple of days off work before Christmas on the understanding at the office that he would forego his claim to a holiday after Christmas. He went down to Moxdale Hall on the Thursday, and was to return home the following Monday, Christmas Eve, so that our dear mother should have us both on Christmas Day. He wrote to us on Friday night a letter brimful of pleasure. Lord Horrick had been so good to him in many ways. Guy was all sympathy with him in his plans and ambitions. Our poor mother, who had grieved much at my dear father's death, was quite excited over this, and very eager to see Harold back, to hear fuller details of all that had been said and done. When at length Christmas Eve arrived nothing would do but she must go to the station to meet Harold's train. (I was late at the office that night, doing duty partly for a AUBREY rice's SECRET 67 clerk who worked with me, and who had in the dinner hour met with an accident which had necessitated his being taken to a hospital.) " My mother went down to the station alone and awaited Harold's train, which was over an hour late. When it at length came in it brought the cruel news that a gentleman, * by name Harold Rice,' was lying dead in a first- class carriage. Sudden illness (a broken blood- vessel on the brain), and death within a few moments. A doctor, summoned hastily from another part of the train by Harold's frightened fellow-travellers, at one of the stoppages, pro- nounced life to be extinct ; and as it was within ten miles of our station, it had been deemed best, on the spur of the moment, to leave him where he was, the doctor agreeing to be locked in the carriage with him for the rest of the journey. Imagine what it must have been to poor mother, looking in vain on the arrival of the train for her expected son, to hear whispers of an accident, and — for she was recognised by some officials on the platform — to be told, kindly enough doubtless, but all too plainly, that her son was dead. The shock turned her brain. That she only partly understood the full meaning of the cruel news they sought to break is evident, for from that day (now over five years ago) she has devoted her life to 68 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY meeting all the trains which come on to the platform where she awaited Harold that night. " The first up train of importance is due at 10.5 a.m., and she is always there to meet it. She passes from one carriage to another, look- ing earnestly for her expected boy. When at length the train moves on she will go to the ladies' waiting room and await the next. She speaks quite openly to any one who may address her. * She has come to meet her son,' and will tell them of Harold's cleverness, the comfort he has always been to her, her hopes concerning him in the future, and so on, breaking away when another train comes in, with an apology * but she must be on the platform to receive him or he would be disappointed.' At i o'clock she regularly goes home to dinner, unless the 12.50 chances to be late, when she sees it in, returning for the 2.20 and remaining until the 5.30 has come in, after which she returns slowly home with the air of one much disappointed. ** She is perfectly harmless. I have taken the best medical advice possible, and leave her to live her life out in this manner as the happier alternative to placing her * under care.' To keep her at home means to give her full liberty. A faithful servant — once our nurse, who has been with us for over twenty years — looks after her interest in the house. Dear mother is most tractable and quiet ; only in one way is she AUBREY rice's SECRET 69 difificult, and that is that she will open every letter which comes to the house, believing it to be from Harold to herself. Sarah has to be very- watchful in this respect. Ycur letters usually find a home in her pocket until my return to claim them. "And now, my dear Gertrude, having at length told you my sad secret, will you some day be afraid to come and see my dear mother? In vain I have endeavoured to talk to her about you ; she has no thought free for anything outside her own life. Once I put your photo- graph in her work-basket. I watched her lift it up and put aside without so much as a glance. I called her attention to it, and she talked of Harold and gave no heed. Only do our friends at Moxdale Hall think of my poor mother as *an invalid.' At first I kept back the train trouble, expecting daily it would pass away. The doctors held out hopes that such would be the case; but, alas, no change has come in all these years, and I have grown to accept the inevitable. And now that I have shared my sad secret with you, I feel a. thousand times happier. Of course I had no thought of keeping you in ignorance in the matter ; but I have hoped against hope my dear mother might recover her brain power and write to you herself, inviting you to come and stay with us. ' I fear * staying ' is now quite out 70 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY of the question, but if you would consent to come over for a few hours we might arrange it; only, remember, if you arrive during the train- meeting time, we shall have to seek her at the railway station, where you will see for yourself the picture I have described." CHAPTER VII THE NEW SQUIRE "AT HOME " The Rector had taken infinite trouble to explain to his friends and acquaintances that his daughter Gertrude had not left home, to use a vulgar phrase, to earn her own living," but to gratify a childish whim, which he fully expected would not be very long-lived. Every one understood without the telling how greatly opposed he had been to the Manor House marriage." The Rev. Archibald Hast- ings was known to be a proud man. Every year of his residence as Rector of Edgcombe Parish Church had emphasised the fact. His everyday * dealings with his parishioners had given force to it, while his occasional speeches on political platforms in towns hard by had led to further certainty in the matter. He was much given to quoting his titled relatives, nominally as supporters of his own views, but in reality to identify his affinity with the aristocracy. My brother-in-law, the Earl of Nottage, who, poor fellow, met with an early death from a fall from his horse, was in the habit of saying," &c. ; or, My cousin, Lord 72 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Chittick, has often observed to me " so and so. How could he be expected to take kindly to the gruesome marriage at the Manor House? The marvel was that he consented to perform the ceremony, but as the living was in the gift of the ladies of the Manor, he doubtless felt it to be a duty to carry out the task imposed upon him. Would he visit at the Manor House as in the days of the late Squire ? This was the ques- tion which agitated the minds of the gossips. Everything had gone quietly enough since the return of the bride and bridegroom from their honeymoon. But few changes had been made on the staff of servants. The new butler, who had been duly appointed, was one who had served his apprenticeship at the Manor House under the late butler as page-boy. He was a quiet, inoffensive young man, who never gossiped in the village. The housekeeper, from whom might have been expected a little special news from time to time, passed on by her dressmaker, the postmaster's daughter, had 'Meft of her own accord," as she was proud to say, not relishing the fact of her fellow-servant becoming her master, ''to say nothing of the delicate attentions he had been in the habit of paying to herself for quite ten years or more." Hence the village folk felt greatly cut off from the Manor House, all the other servants belong- THE NEW SQUIRE **AT HOME " 73 ing to distant homes, the said late housekeeper's method of creating her own monopoly of gossip by bringing her maids from far-off parishes. It was with real excitement that the post office — the village centre of news — heard from no less an authority than good Dr. Maynard that there was going to be a gentlemen's dinner party at the Manor House, and the Rector was to be amongst the guests, and as chance happened that Mr. Aubrey Rice, Miss Gertrude s fiance, was spending a day or two at the Rectory, he was also to be there. This was absolutely the first sign of hospi- tality which the Manor House had given since the new master took up his position there. How it came to pass the village gossips would never know, for the little plan had come to life, and been discussed and settled in the sacred precincts of Mrs. Butler - Edgcombe's own boudoir. It had arisen on this wise. " Do you not think, John, it might be well for us very occasionally to entertain guests as we did in dear father's time ? I expect the village and neighbourhood feel neglected somewhat." Matilda Edgcombe had said this very cautiously, as if feeling her way with her husband of now some five months' standing. "If you think it right, my dear," said the new Squire, putting down the newspaper which he had been reading to give full attention to his F 74 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY wife, I have no objection. After the Rector's unkindness in forbidding Miss Gertrude to keep up her pleasant friendship here, you would not perhaps think it necessary to include him in the invitation ? " The question was put quietly, but the speaker's face had flushed in proof of the feeling which lay beneath the words. Oh, I think, John, we should do well to ignore the Rector's cruel discourtesy. It will be the best censure of his unfriendly action to take no notice of it," said Matilda, promptly. I only wish," she added, we could get our dear Gertrude here for the evening, but that, of course, is out of the question, as we must start with a gentlemen's dinner party." Then there had been a somewhat lengthy but very amicable discussion as to which guests to invite. Miss Maria Edgcombe giving her opinion in mild, hushed tones, but as one whose vote counted in any decision which might be involved. Finally all was settled, the date chosen, and the housekeeper duly informed what was about to take place. On the Sunday before the day fixed for the dinner party, Mrs. Butler- Edgcombe had been very quick to notice a very dis- tinguished-looking stranger in the Rectory pew. It only needed Gertrude's blushing face to associate him with herself, and later, when THE NEW SQUIRE "AT HOME " 75 seeing him full face, the ''blue, blue eyes" (described by Birdie in her first account of her fiance) settled the doubt as to his identity. *' How delightful to get this unexpected peep of you, dear," Mrs. Butler- Edgcombe had said as, the service over, she lingered in the church- yard for Gertrude, who quickly appeared, Aubrey Rice walking by her side. ''Papa telegraphed for me to come," said Gertrude, turning rosy red, partly from self- consciousness, but largely because of the great pleasure of getting speech in this way of Aunt Matilda. " Let me introduce you to Aubrey. Is it not fortunate for us he had business here to-morrow in connection with his office, and he wrote to ask if he might spend Sunday with my people ? Papa telegraphed off for me at once, and we travelled by the same train." " I think the good fortune must not stop there," said Mr. Butler- Edgcombe, who had been introduced to Mr. Rice when that gentle- man was presented to his wife. " May we not share in the pleasure of this unexpected visit ? We are entertaining guests at the Manor to- morrow night. Will not Mr. Rice be one of them ? The Rector is coming. I only wish we were privileged to include ladies, but this time it is just a bachelors' dinner party." Gertrude blushed, as she said warmly, " I should have been delighted to be invited, but I 76 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY must go back to my young charges in the morning. As to Mr. Rice, what say you, Aubrey?" I shall be pleased to accept Mr. Butler- Edgcombes hospitality," said Aubrey, quietly, " if I can by any possibility manage it. Per- haps," he added, turning to the new Squire with a frank smile which lighted up his face most wonderfully, *'you will allow me to leave it open. I must get up to town early to- morrow afternoon, but I might get back again. What is your dinner hour ? " ''7.30 for 8," replied the new Squire promptly, well pleased that Mr. Aubrey Rice had thought the invitation worthy of some special effort. And then the Rector joined them, and as they all chatted pleasantly together on the way to the Manor House carriage, which stood waiting its master and mistress, none but those in the secret would have guessed how bitter the feeling was in the clergyman's heart against the man of whom he thought as a society interloper. It was on the following day that Dr. May- nard mentioned, in the post office, that there was to be a dinner party at the Manor House that night, and the news created so much excitement in the village that it became to them afterwards in memory as a red-letter day. Mr. Butler- Edgcombe played the part of host THE NEW SQUIRE "AT HOME " 77 that evening with becoming dignity. The most critical could not have complained of the ease with which he received his guests. His manner was entirely free from what is to-day known as *'side" on the one hand or ''nervous humility" on the other. He was particularly natural and self-possessed, and never wavered for a moment in doing the right thing, as measured by the hard-and-fast rule of society, at the right time. Only once during the evening did anything arise of a specially trying nature, and for this the Rector was entirely responsible. It was during a busy hum of voices eager in conversation that the Rector chanced to ask his hostess " if she still gave much attention to the cultivation of poultry.-^" " My husband has become the active partner in my poultry business," Mrs. Butler- Edg- combe said pleasantly, her cheeks flushing a little as she spoke. Indeed," she added, ''he always had far more to do with it than I." At that moment she turned to give some direction to a servant who stood by her right shoulder, when the Rector, forgetful of all good manners, looked towards his left-hand neigh- bour and remarked, " I knew he was a good poultry carver, but I did not think he took interest in rearing poulets." The remark would doubtless have been absolutely lost in the general hubbub of talking 78 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY had it not chanced at that very moment that there was a sudden lull in the conversation, one of those strange pauses for which no one can account but which so often are attended with disastrous consequences. Every word of the Rector's had been heard even at the farthest end of the table, and the foolish utterance was even more foolishly greeted by a general titter. Only one man present dared to show his indignation by an audible " Hush ! " called out in the heat of the moment as the natural expression of his own feeling, and that one was Aubrey Rice. Of course it would have been better had the host passed over the matter in contemptuous silence ; but John Butler- Edgcombe had not come into any sudden heritage of courtly man- ners, bequeathed by an unbroken ancestry of noble lineage, when he married his wife Matilda, and this was a crisis when his natural endow- ment of courteous feeling did not go far enough to help him to rise to the occasion. He bit his lip, looking for the moment un- questionably angry ; then he spoke out in the awkward silence which Aubrey's Hush ! " had enforced. He said, with a little laugh, Doubt- less Mr. Hastings will also remember that I have in the past been considered something of an expert in decanting wine ? I see my butler has made some mistake in bottling this THE NEW SQUIRE ''AT HOME " 79 port. If you will kindly excuse me a moment, I will get another bottle up from my wine cellar and decant it myself." There was certainly more dignity than anger in the tone of the new Squire as he said this, but being himself in the position of host, it might have been wiser to have left the speech un- spoken. For the most part the guests looked uncomfortable. Aubrey Rice, chancing to sit near the master of the house, seeing his inten- ~ tion of leaving the room, rose from his seat and opened the door for him. And then the con- versation flowed apace, each one intent to bury the unpleasant moment beneath the flowery nothings of more courteous speech. When the evening at length came to an end — all had gone well with that one exception — the new Squire sat in his wife's boudoir and chatted Over some interesting details. He had heard of a mare belonging to a neighbouring squire which was to be sold privately. If his informant had spoken correctly as to her size, she was just what they were looking out for to run in the shafts with Nancy. He would lose no time in going over the next morning. Then Dr. Maynard had asked him to help the free library scheme in connection with South Dinsley : what would Matilda say if he sent a cheque to the promoters for ^500 ? Anything in the way of education was good. So THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY And so on. At last, when it was time to retire for the night, Mr. Butler - Edgcombe said somewhat humbly, I am sorry I took any notice of the Rector's ill-mannered speech, Matilda ; you must please forgive me. One thing I shall never forget in connection with it, and that was young Rice's attitude ! " And Matilda, amid many blushes and with a very tearful smile, assured John that he had nothing to regret about anything he had said or done at this their first dinner-party. As to the Rector, she thought he had behaved abominably, and she almost washed that this might be their last opportunity of laying themselves open to the ill-mannered laughter of their guests. Still," added Matilda, I am jealous for you, John. I do not like it to be thought that you cannot meet Society's claims in the way of showing hospitality. But for this we would let to-night be our first and last attempt. You are more than capable of making a good host. I v/as more than proud of you to-night ! " I thank you, my dear Matilda, for your praise. It is very sweet to me," said the new Squire, his eyes quite shining with feeling. ''If you are satisfied, I ought not to be annoyed at the display of any ill-natured manners on the part of our visitors. Still, perhaps it would scarcely be well for any one concerned to tolerate more than a certain amount of this THE NEW SQUIRE **AT HOME " 8 1 sort of thing. If I allow twenty per cent, as due to the somewhat singular circumstances attached to the fact of my being master here, and another ten to account for the low tone of our supposed high-class gentry, I think I shall have gone as far as I can ; more than this would pauperise my own self - respect and endanger theirs." Yes, I agree with you," said Matilda; **but, after all, the Rector was most to blame to-night. I must confess he has all along pained me by his attitude concerning our marriage. I always think our clergy should be above all the absurd distinctions of Society's making. If their mis- sion is to help us to think about another world, what right have they, by their own actions, to bind our thoughts down to this ? I never have cared very much for Mr. Hastings, but, as 'Gertrude's father, one liked to be friendly with him. Do you know, I am not so sorry now that Gertrude has gone away from the narrow- ing influences of her home-life, and I am more glad than I can say that Aubrey Rice seems a sensible young man ! " What a long speech for Matilda Butler- Edgcombe to make. A year ago how im- possible it would have been for her to express herself thus freely. Was it possible that affec- tion of a kind for her good-hearted husband Ihad brought to her nature a genial air, which 82 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY helped her to set aside the habitual ^'reserve of her former life and talk openly upon subjects which moved her ? It was not difficult to discover that ; the marriage which the Rector spoke of as a gross blunder," which, admittedly, was so singular in some respects, so quaint in others, was not likely to sink to the level of the commonplace. The new Squire had grave thoughts about the responsibilities of wealth. The hand that did not gather is lax in scattering riches " is a well-known proverb. But Mr. Butler- Edgcombe was no spendthrift. He believed in working upon some plan, that was all. He had no difficulty in getting his wife and Miss Maria Edgcombe to see eye to eye with him in the matter. They had practically placed their ample fortunes in his hand. They asked him to do what was best to be done with the wealth which, more often than not in the past, with their simple tastes and habits, had been almost a burden to them. Here was an opportunity for speculation — an opening few men could face and not be tempted to launch out into the indulgence of some hobby. But honest John Butler- Edgcombe was moved by none of these things. He had only one desire, and that was to do more with the money at his disposal than had already THE NEW SQUIRE **AT HOME " 85 been done with it. It was not long before the new master at the Manor House had earned for himself the benediction which is the portion of the man who considers the poor — such con- sideration " involving careful enquiry, planning out what is best for those who need the uplift- ing hand of the one capable of giving such assistance. This is the charity distribution which has power to develop self-help and main- tain self-respect. John had his own views in reference to the vexed question of servants. He believed, from his long contact with this most difficult class^ that the problem how to satisfy them would quickly be solved if, starting with a stated salary for the special post held, each individual had power to supplement earnings by some legiti- mate effort. Thus the laundry-maid, in receipt of a stated wage, would be paid in addition a commission upon the number of garments she was able to turn out satisfactorily, stimulating her arm to deal with many rather than with few, and absolutely removing the power to grumble because of overwork. Each position in a house- hold would command its own special treatment on similar lines. The cook would, at the end of each week or month, receive so much per head for all who had been specially prepared for at a meal beyond the immediate family. The housemaid would gather her gains on the 84 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY same principle, and the various departments of service would each hold some special oppor- tunity of adding to the usual wage peculiar to the position. It will be seen at a glance that labour under these circumstances and conditions would in- evitably mean profit to the worker so often accustomed to grumble and complain when extra work fell to his or her share. At the same time it would introduce into the monotony of the life of service certain speculative elements which would create a very healthy and legiti- mate excitement. How interested our dear father would have been, John," Matilda would say when her husband explained some pet theory which he bid her aid him to reduce to practice ; " but he would have been so timid about altering long- existing plans." " They have altered themselves," observed John, drily. " Just as the sea at Dunwich, where we stayed last summer on the Suffolk coast, was once over five miles away from the church, and now is only some few hundred yards, so time brings about changes in ways no human brain ever contemplates or plans. Our mistake is not to recognise these changes. In the old days when service and slavery were one and the same, there was no room for expectation, no need for stimulus. But slavery ceased and paid THE NEW SQUIRE *'AT HOME " 85 service came in ; and the sooner we recognise that there is an injustice in expecting eighteen- pennyworth of service for a shilling's pay the better. Service to-day means pay. Pay must be varied according to the worth (to him who is paymaster) of the worker, so planning set wages that a margin is left for what I will call my speculative theory. This is what we are coming to if we would keep a hold upon our employes and make domestic service worth going in for." *'John," said Matilda one day after her husband had been stating the above views, you owe it to Society at large to tell the world what you are . teaching me so emphatically to believe in. Why don't you write to the Times ? " " Because, my dear Matilda " said John, with a grim smile,' they would rule an ex-butler's statements out of order." " Not when he writes as the present squire of Edgcombe Manor, "^ said Matilda, with spirit. By which it will be seen that Matilda Butler- Edgcombe was actually growing quite proud of her husband. CHAPTER VIII SUNSET ILLUMININGS Two years had passed since Miss Matilda Edgcombe had escaped the grave emergency which threatened her and her sister, by marrying her late father's butler. To-day she sat by that sister's deathbed. She was looking younger by some years than upon the day of her marriage, but Miss Maria had aged considerably. She had been ill for over eight months, and suffering and the enforced confinement in one room had left their marks upon her. Her eyes were dulled and had receded in their sockets, her cheeks were faded, and the general appearance of her drooping frame was of a body prematurely old. You will be better when the spring time comes, Maria," said her sister Matilda in what were intended to be cheerful tones. You must not talk of leaving us yet. We could not possibly spare you." A lump came into the speaker's throat as she said this, and her attempts at cheerfulness were certainly many -degrees below the standard of success. I do not think I want to get better, please," 86 SUNSET ILLUMININGS 87 said Maria, plaintively. I am so weary — so weary ; and, besides, I take up so much of your time nursing me ; and then I am so sorry for John, and he is always so kind." The invalid's cough came on badly at this time, and effectually prevented her sister reply- ing to her remark at the moment. When at length it quietened down a little, Maria con- tinued, and her tones were dreamy and low- pitched. I am glad you married John, Matilda. I could never have rested in my grave if, when I went there, you had been left all alone in this large old-fashioned house." Then, after a pause, she continued in a way which would pretty well have explained to a casual observer the boundary line of her theology — I am wondering a little how I shall explain it all to 'dear father and mother w^hen I see them in that other world." **Ah, Maria, you need not trouble," said Matilda, quite unmoved, excepting for a little flush which dyed her cheek at the moment. They will have heavenly eyes to look at earthly things with there. They will think more of honesty and uprightness of character than of worldly position, and they will honour John as we do for his devoted and unfailing care of us. I am sure mother will be the very first to admire John with very genuine admiration ! " Maria looked relieved. 88 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY And you think father will not — will not say we have wronged our great ancestry in letting him be master here ? " she continued, fixing her gaze on the ceiling, and speaking as one is apt to speak when conversing with thoughts long familiar to the mind rather than with an individual only that moment on the scene. It has seemed so difficult sometimes to make it all fit in, Matilda. I know we did what we thought best at the time — " The flush upon Matilda's cheek grew more brilliant, but her tones were just as calm as when she had last spoken as she replied, " Set your mind at rest, Maria. Our father and mother were themselves the best proof of the genuine nobility of our ancestry. In spite of wealth and position, were they not simple- minded enough to love downright goodness wherever they met with it ? Surely there is an aristocracy of character which in heaven is accepted at its own value. Dear mother and father had this ; John has it also ; hence in heaven they will all be equal." When you talk like that, I see it quite clearly," said Miss Maria, withdrawing her eyes from the ceiling and fixing them on her sister's face. "And we have been very happy," said Matilda softly, stroking her sister's hand. John has always been so kind, so considerate, SUNSET ILLUMININGS 89 and far more thoughtful than the husbands are of whom we read in books. I am sure some of our most aristocratic connections might be taught by him. With John the responsibilities of married life are so serious, while so many of our friends think lightly of them, or ignore them altogether." - ' John is what our dear mother used to call *one of Natures gentlemen,'" said Maria, smiling and colouring a little. " No," she added, musingly, it would be quite impossible for him to be seen at a disadvantage in heaven ! He is so honourable." Matilda's cheek crimsoned. Her sister's praise of her husband was very sweet to her. "He always thought highly of you, Maria," she ventured to. say after a moment's pause, and the sick woman replied tremblingly, God bless him for his goodness to us both ! " and as she spoke a smile of great peacefulness came into her face, making her look for the moment, in spite of her hardened features and pinched and faded cheeks, almost beautiful. After this she eased herself on her pillow, losing her breath in the effort, finally sinking back into much the same position as before. Then there fell over the two sisters a dreamy silence, such as often comes into a sick room, turning minutes into hours, and reducing hours into moments. Neither spoke again. At this G 90 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY minute they understood each other perfectly. What need to put in words the thoughts which floated through their minds ? Again and again Maria smiled to herself, as if her thoughts were pleasant, and Matilda smiled for company ; and the gentle ticking of the clock seemed as the sympathy of a friend. By and bye Maria slept, but Matilda still sat on. And thus her husband found her later, when, softly entering the room, he approached with almost reverent step, bearing in his hands flowers and grapes for the invalid. Matilda started out of her reverie. At this moment the rays of the winter's setting sun came softly through the casement window, lighting up the corner of the room in which the invalid's bed was placed, bathing her pillow in the rich rose-tinted glow — caught from the coloured glass through which the light had found its way — playing upon the sick woman's grey-touched hair, her brow with its deep fur- rows, her closed eyelids, her faded cheeks, and the throat, no longer fair, which sickness had wasted. And here, beneath the chin, just catching the edge of the frills which encircled the neck, the light made itself a border-line, framing, as it were, the form it thus enriched with colour. Mr. Butler- Edgcombe stood as one suddenly arrested. How like a picture ! " he uttered SUNSET ILLUMININGS 91 softly, leaning over his wife's chair, as he gazed at his sister-in-law. r>--This was but for a moment ; the next and he had stepped aside, approaching the pillow in a way which cast a shadow over the spotless linen and darkened the splendour which had so trans- fixed him. Matilda took the flowers and fruit from his hands as he bent over the invalid. Lower and lower he bowed his head, listening for the regular breathing of the sleeper, but he listened in vain. It was only the matter of a few seconds before he gently led his wife from the room. His authoritative Come away, dear," could not be resisted, even had Matilda contemplated doing so. His extreme tender- ness as he whispered, My poor Matilda, but this is sudden grief for you to bear," explained more than anything else his action. They were in the presence of death ... so gently and without attracting special attention had rest come to the weary. The news of the trouble at the Manor House, which, although for some time foreshadowed, had actually come most unexpectedly, softened the Rector's heart somewhat towards the lady who had so grievously transgressed in his sight the laws of Society by her undignified marriage. He knew how deeply attached the sisters were, and how tenaciously the weaker mind had twined itself round the stronger one. The 92 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY untwining would be felt to the one remaining- To her, her sister s death was a calamity. Of course Matilda will feel more than ever now the involved position she created by her disastrous marriage. Could anything be more intolerable than being left as she is to-day — a woman of culture tied for life to a man who had been the family servant, with not a creature to speak to in her own position, completely cut off from her aristocratic relations ? No wonder her cousin, Lord Walters, was so bitter in his remarks to me at the Conservative Club that day. ' Matilda has done for herself for ever with her parents' relatives. There is not one of us would ever consent to cross the threshold of Edgcombe Manor House again while ^Aa^ man rem.ains the master ! ' And Lord Walters is right. It is only thus that the English aris- tocracy can maintain its magnificent prestige ! The Rector continued to wage wrathful utterances so long as he was left undisturbed. He had an indulgent listener in his wife, but when he had accused Matilda Edgcombe, in his unrestrained anger, of actually planning to bring about the undesirable marriage by putting it into the butler's head that he ought to marry " ; was it not wise for a man of his years to settle down ? " etc., Mrs. Hastings was roused. ''Stop, Archibald!" she cried, rising from SUNSET ILLUMININGS 93 her seat and stamping her foot, I think you have said quite enough. You have got to the end of facts, and before you attempt fiction, it would be better to consuh poor Matilda, and hear what she has to say in the matter ! " I am surprised at you, my dear," exclaimed the wrathful Rector. To hear you speak one would think you agreed to the union." And upon this he proceeded to lecture his wife in a way which hopelessly involved Matilda Edg- combe, the British aristocracy, and plebeian butlers. The exercise, however, of his vocal powers in giving this harangue went far to exhaust the personal animus which inspired the address, and at the close the Rector took a much more charitable view of the matter. Matilda Edgcombe had done a very foolish thing, but that was no reason why, at such a moment as the present, she should be deserted. I must go and see her," he said, pausing in the walk he had been taking from end to end of a large old-fashioned hearth-rug, '*and, 'pon my word, but if she expresses half a wish to have Gertrude with her for a few days, I think we should do well to waive objection. A time of death is a time of setting aside differences." I wonder whether Lord Walters will think that and come to the funeral ? " said Mrs. Hastings sleepily, with a half-suppressed yawn. (She had sat up much beyond her usual hour 94 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY to meet the Rector on his return home from London with the news from the Manor House> and body and brain were tired.) Not he ! " was the quick reply. Blue blood is thick, and moves slowly through the veins. I know I pride myself upon my own, but my professional work brings other influences to bear. I mean too what I say about Gertrude. A week at the Manor House could not hurt the girl, and Matilda might be glad of her. At any rate I will suggest it when I call in the morning." But the Rector had no opportunity given him of making any proposals at Edgcombe Manor House. The message brought down when he sent his card up was to the effect that Mrs. Butler- Edgcombe was too unwell to be seen, and the Squire was engaged with the family lawyer." CHAPTER IX GERTRUDE HASTINGS* PROMISE TO HER PUPIL " Miss Hastings, I wish you were a little girl like me. Don't you ? " The question was put in the piping treble of a child's voice, and the wistful eyes which looked up into Gertrude's face were full of that strange earnestness so often associated with delicate children whose minds have grown apace, while their bodies have been slow to develop. I think I might, Daisy, sometimes, you know, when I , felt very tired and wanted to go to sleep in the middle of the day, as you are going just now when I have tucked you up in your little bed. Are you ready, darling ? " Gertrude Hastings stroked the fair hair of her young charge, and smiled upon her upturned face as if at least the two were excellent friends. ''No, don't, please, send me away from you yet. Miss Hastings," said Daisy, beseechingly. *' I want to tell you something — something quite private — now Blanche is practising her music in the drawing-room. It is quite a secret ! " Well, what is it, little woman ? " inquired Gertrude, sitting down and taking Daisy on her 95 96 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY knee. " I will give you five whole minutes — three hundred seconds — so hasten on." Thus encouraged, Daisy spoke — " I heard mamma say yesterday, if you were not so big and such a real lady, she wanted to keep you with us for ever and ever! But because, you see, people forget to pay papa for sitting in his pews, and then some go away and never sit in them at all, and then the money mamma wants to keep house with isn't there to be spent, so you see papa and mamma are going to ask you if you would not like to take care of some other little girls whose papas are very rich, and I thought if only you happened to be a little girl just as small as me you could have half of my wee bed, and mamma need never mind about things for — for — Oh, Miss Hastings, if you go away my heart will break ; I love you so much I cannot, cannot let you go ! " and Daisy, who had by this time worked herself up into a frenzy of despair, broke out into a passionate fit of weeping. So this was the meaning of little Daisys unusual depression during lesson-time that morning. This accounted for the wistful glances which had been shot across the break- fast-table by this wee little woman usually so sunny-hearted and bright. I am afraid papa and mamma would grieve if they thought you had been listening to what Gertrude's promise to her pupil 97 must have been quite a private conversation," said Gertrude, gravely, ''and I am sure they would not want you to repeat it to me, Daisy ; so now, dear, we will talk no more about it, but you must go for your noonday sleep, and try to forget what you overheard." Daisy by this time was sobbing softly — the passion of tears had spent itself — a sudden out- break and soon over, so natural to childhood. She looked wistfully at her governess — ''Was I very naughty to listen? I was playing in papa s study, and could not help hearing, for all my dollies had gone to sleep, and there was a great hush in my corner ! " "Well, well," said Gertrude,, putting the little one off her lap and rising as if anxious to end the conversation, " I do not think any one would reprove you, if that was the case, for having heard papa and mamma talking, but my little Daisy will not say anything more about it, and it will soon be forgotten ! " "And you will not go and leave us because the people forget to pay for sitting in papa's pews in church ? " said Daisy, the tears again starting to her eyes. "No, little darling," replied Gertrude, giving the child an impulsive hug. " Do not worry ! Mamma will not, I hope, send me away, and I could not go until you and Blanche were a little more grown up than you are now." 98 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY " Oh, I wish I could stay little for always / exclaimed Daisy, skipping about in her glee, her baby mind quite relieved. She was ready to be sent off to bed now, and soon was sleeping the peaceful, happy sleep of childhood. Meanwhile Gertrude Hastings sat in the school-room buried in deep thought. Was this, then, the meaning of Mrs. Brownlows many sighs when discussing very necessary expendi- ture in connection with home life ? Were they really poor — forced to bear the burden of limited means, in addition to the heavy care of working a poor parish where the necessary church funds were so hard to raise ? Little Daisy s revelation prepared Gertrude for the interview with Mrs. Brownlow which came later in the day, when her young charges had gone to bed. She was sitting with the Vicar s wife in the morning-room, which, when alone, they in- variably used for meals, and for writing or working in during intervening hours. It was still early in the evening. At eight they would be going to the church (which stood alongside of the Vicarage), for the usual week-night service. " I must apologise to you, Miss Hastings," Mrs. Brownlow said, putting down her work while speaking, for the delay in paying your salary, but Mr. Brownlow has found it difficult to spare me money this month. He is, alas,. Gertrude's promise to her pupil 99 responsible for so much in the parish, if funds do not come in in an ordinary way, and just now things are terribly behind ! " Please do not think about it for a moment," exclaimed Gertrude, blushing a little consciously as she remembered Daisy's conversation of that morning. I am in no hurry ; indeed, I often wish I had no salary to receive. It is such a real pleasure to be here, and I am so full of sympathy with you in your busy, struggling life. I hope it is not presumptuous to say so. I never knew before what an anxiety a city parish must be ! " Ah, you have seen something of us in the eighteen months you have been with us, my dear," said Mrs Brownlow, with a sigh. " I feel I may treat you as a friend, and speak quite openly." Gertrude looked up with a frank smile. She had a very warm admiration for little Mrs. Brownlow, but in some way they had never become very intimate. Possibly this was the reason why they got on so well together ; for surely too much demonstration on the one hand, creating, as it must do, expectation on the other, is apt to increase the temperature of sociability to hothouse heat, rendering minds abnormally sensitive, and so preparing the way for trouble which, under healthier conditions, could never originate. lOO THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY *'You see, my dear Miss Hastings," con- tinued Mrs. Brownlow, ''when we came to this parish we followed a vicar who, having private means of his own, was quite independent. As a matter of fact, he gave every penny of his stipend back to the parish, usually anony- mously, but his subscriptions helped to support much of the special work, which is so important in these poor districts. Having no money of our own, we cannot afford to devote our stipend to parish interests, but unless we constantly find money for parochial purposes, a great many things would come to a dead stop, and this is the pity of it all. While we are paying twenty- five pounds a year out of our little income to help towards the curate's salary — and oh ! what should we do without his help, we should have been in our graves long ago — and another twenty to church expenses, because our poor collections will not reach the point needed, and, while to keep things going, we are obliged to spare a pound here and a few shillings there, we are actually running into debt ourselves. Yes; think of it, we, who should be public examples in our parish, of whom no one should have it in his power to tax us with debt, we are incurring it daily — not for luxuries, God knows — but for food and clothes of the simplest and most necessary kind. Oh, Miss Hastings, I could weep over my own woes when I think of Gertrude's promise to her pupil ioi our fetters through no fault of our own ! Were it not for the patience and forbearance of our tradespeople how could we live ? I often smile through my tears in my corner of our pew on Sunday when I see our grocer come into church. * Ah ! ' I say to myself, ' it is to you we, at the Vicarage, owe our breakfast this morning, and tea and breakfast every morning for the last six months! May Heaven reward you! I must confess I am less comfortable in my thoughts about some to whom I owe money, because they have not hesitated to ask for it ; poor things, I expect they wanted it or they would not have troubled us ; but, anyway, we are in debt, and I hate, hate, hate it ! And it can't be right ! It fetters us, this being in debt, I say, and more than that, it burdens our spirit and unfits us for the very work we are here to do. I maintain, to do real spiritual work a clergyman needs to be quite free from any financial strain. How could this be in a parish like ours ? Well, it sounds, I fear, a little hard to say it, but poor as our people are, I believe solemnly that if they had been trained to first admit and then live up to their responsibilities, the money would be forthcoming for parish work, and the endow- ment would — if not broken into — amply meet our personal wants. Of course, I should be looked upon as a most absurd financier if I I02 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY suggested that the claim the parish church has upon the people should mean a sort of tribute paid weekly to the treasurer of the common fund by each family in the district — yes, even the very poorest might give a penny a head, saved from luxuries — beer, tobacco, or sweets - — but I am sure this would go a long way to solve the problem * how to reach the masses ' ; for where the poor's pennies go, there will they follow to see what becomes of them." Mrs. Brownlow had spoken with great excite- ment. Her fair face, usually so peaceful in its setting, had flushed, and her eyes grown brilliantly large as she proceeded. I am so sorry for you and the Vicar," stam- mered Gertrude. It is good of you to explain things so plainly." My dear Miss Hastings, it is due to you," said Mrs. Brownlow, quickly. You are a member of our family to-day, and are entitled to know, in measure at least, some of our piteous struggles. But I am especially anxious to tell you to-day because — because I am sorely afraid we must deny ourselves the luxury of a governess for our little girls and send them to school. I blush to say it, but I can no longer find the fifteen pounds which we pay you, all this time wishing we could afford three times that sum. Even then it would be but poor return for all the comfort you have been to us.'' Gertrude's promise to her pupil 103 Please, dear Mrs. Brownlow, do not let my money ^trouble you," said Gertrude, warmly. I will gladly take half — less than half — say a year, and stay and help you. I have learnt so many things since I came to you, and making my own dresses as I do now, thanks to you, is very economical ! Besides, my mother would never let me want for clothes." Then, seeing Mrs. Brownlow's lip tremble as she was trying to steady her voice to answer, Gertrude added, Please let me look upon the matter as settled. I shall indeed feel it a privilege to help, however little, in easing your burden of poverty ; and I know your little girls are not strong enough to attend an ordinary school ! " You are too good," said Mrs. Brownlow, at length finding her voice, her tears flowing as she spoke, *'but I am afraid we must not selfishly accept' your generous offer. Besides, Mr. Rice might object. You forget you have let me into your secret of trying to save a little for his sake." Gertrude crimsoned. For the moment Aubrey Rice had been entirely out of her thoughts. She was, however, quick to answer Mrs. Brownlow — I am quite sure Mr. Rice will think as I do, and be very proud to know I am really able to be of any special service to you. When he comes next Sunday, as he hopes to do, thanks to your kind invitation, you shall hear I04 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY from his own lips how pleased he is with my suggestion. I know he has always felt grateful to you and the Vicar for your kind con- sideration." This conversation had taken place the very day of Miss Maria Edgcombe's death. The following morning Gertrude received a few lines from the Squire, speaking of his wife's sad loss and of her overwhelming grief Within an hour Gertrude Hastings was on her way to Edgcombe Manor, to be what help and comfort she could to Aunt Matilda. The implicit obedience enforced by her father at the time of Miss Edgcombe's marriage made no appeal to her to-day. She was of age, and the fetters which had bound the life of her girlhood had been broken when she left home. She had always felt her father's action on that occasion to have been unjust. To-day she resented it as more than an injustice. She had been cruelly forced into a position of ingratitude, and those to whom she owed so much in the past had been distinctly wronged by her conduct. It was too late to seek Aunt Maria's forgiveness, but could she not find opportunity in the future to restore to Aunt Matilda fourfold the love and sympathy and companionship of which her conscience told her she had robbed her ? CHAPTER X AN ANGRY RECTOR " Preposterous ! " exclaimed the Rev. Archi- bald Hastings (a few days after the events narrated in the last chapter) as he brought his hand down upon the table with a force which caused his wife to exclaim, My dear / " but did not perceptibly move even a hair of the very curly head of the young man to whom the remark was addressed. I tell you," reiterated the Rector, getting almost black in the face with anger of a kind so painful to witness, I tell you the thing is pre- posterous ! You are mad, Aubrey Rice ; clean gone off your head, or how could you calmly contemplate foregoing an honourable position in life for one that can only disgrace your family ? What, I want to know, was your education for if not to fit you for a life where mind held its own over matter, a life where every gentleman must find his place in the brain power of the age ? ''I do not say you have actually reached a very definite or exalted position in your present calling, but, at all events, you were in a fair I06 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY way to do so, and now in cold blood you come to me — and, mark you, when everything is settled too — and tell me you are going to throw up your old work and become a draper's assist- ant ! Bah, Rice ! I should have thought a man of your calibre would have had more self- respect than to have done anything so absolutely contemptible ! I have no patience with you ! " Excuse me, Mr. Hastings," said Aubrey Rice, with great difficulty keeping his temper, but having been brought up to regard all legitimate trade as honourable, I fail to see to what particular point in my action your sug- gestion applies. You forget my Quaker ancestry will have given my mind quite another standard whereby to measure the legitimate calling of an educated and cultured man, presumably a gentleman, from the one which you are at the present moment upholding ! " I don't understand what you are driving at," said the Rector, knocking the ashes out of his meerschaum pipe, and refilling it with an activity which had a good deal of nervous irritability in it. Simply this," said Aubrey Rice, with heightened colour, but otherwise unmoved ; I have been taught to believe that every rig'A^ calling has room for a good man, and that no man is at his best unless well educated and cultured. Further, that no trade can lower the AN ANGRY RECTOR man who enters it with the full determination to make it a means of doing his duty to God and man. Bear with me a moment, and let me prove my point. Are not well-educated (and for the matter of that, well-born) men with plenty of natural refinement, sensitive, truth- loving, and withal with high ideals, better able to keep up the standard of righteous dealing, man to man, in the world of commerce than the less-educated, less-cultured, less-sensitive indi- vidual who enters trade with but one object, and that only to make money? Am I to be despised because I enter a position where some day, if not to-day, I can lay down laws which will protect my business from what is known as * shoddyism ' on the one hand and clap-trap bargains on the other ? Am I to be upbraided as a fool because I realise (presumably led to do so because of my Quaker bringing-up) that, seeing it is jiecessary to have drapers' shops to meet the civilised requirements of the everyday life of a nation like ours, it is best to have a man of education and refined feeling at the head who will see his employes have all the considera- tion due to them in reference to health and happiness ? Surely it ennobles the business, be it what it may, if the employer allows his people a definite margin in the use of their time for self-culture, and pays a wage which does more than provide for the bare necessities of life ? " I08 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY " Your argument is grotesquely uncon- vincing," snorted the Rector, changing his position in his arm-chair by uncrossing and recrossing his legs. Aubrey was roused. His voice was no longer calm and unruffled, but angry, indig- nant, as if patience could go no further. It was the turning of the worm. He rose to his feet as he said, with spirit, " I am not telling you that I am about to enter a trade which makes its profits out of the losses of its sup- porters ! Perhaps had I come to you with the avowal that I was about to be taken into part- nership in some brewery, you would have spared me your opposition ? " " Possibly," replied the Rector, with a deri- sive laugh, "but even you will admit. Rice, there is a distinct difference between the trade and a trade." Certainly," said Aubrey ; I admit it abso- lutely by holding that the well-born man of culture will find but little scope for ennobling and purifying the trade, whereas in what you are pleased to term a trade, his opportunities will be exhaustless." ''Well, well," said the Rector, rising and patting the air as if fanning himself in an oppressive atmosphere, ''you and I would never agree upon these matters if we discussed them until the poet s silvery moon became blue, AN ANGRY RECTOR 109 SO we had better end this painful interview. I can only repeat what I have already said, I think you a fool to give up good prospects for bad, and, if I have any say in the matter of Gertrude's engagement, it will cease from now. No daughter of mine will get my consent for her marriage with a tradesman ; and if she goes contrary to my wishes, she must do so with her eyes open ; this home will close its doors to her for ever — " Hush, my dear!" exclaimed Mrs. Hastings, suddenly roused to take part in the conversa- tion. Gertrude has a mind of her own, and you must leave her to judge ; if she sees things as Aubrey does — " But the Rector never allowed even his wife to be insubordinate. He was master of his own home, and he enforced obedience with an iron will. If any one differed from him they must learn to do so in silence. Mrs. Hastings had learned her lesson very well in her (nearly) thirty years of married life ; and it was on the very rarest occasions — this being one — that she ventured a remark which at all ran counter to her husband's opinions. While she was now attempting to put in a word for Gertrude, the Rector interrupted her by exclaiming, Don't interfere, my dear ; I know what I am saying ; and the sooner Aubrey Rice understands it the better ! " no THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY I must leave Gertrude to speak for herself/ said Aubrey. " I know what she thinks, minus her father's anger and threats ; when these have been made known to her, she might wish to reconsider her position, but in that case she will not be the Gertrude Hastings I have always admired for her sense of justice and her noble independence of character. Doubtless she may have anticipated your opposition, as she was so anxious to come with me to-day, but I thought to spare her a painful interview. If you will allow me, I will withdraw now, and rejoin her at the Manor House, where she came so soon as she had heard of Mrs. Butler- Edgcombe's great loss." Gertrude at the Manor House, and we knew nothing about it ! " exclaimed the Rector, angrily. How dare she go there without my permission ! " For the moment he quite forgot he had himself suggested (when talking over the Manor House troubles with his wife on hearing of Maria Edgcombe's death) that if Gertrude's presence were desired for a few days it would be wise to sanction her going. But men of the Rector's calibre seldom allow any one else the privilege of arriving at a conclusion with which they perfectly agree so long as the initiation emanates from themselves. Men of this type find right to be right because they say it is so, but if some one else tries to prove the AN ANGRY RECTOR 1 1 1 fact, then right becomes wrong, and compli- cations ensue. Half an hour later, as Aubrey, having re- counted (with a few modifications to spare Gertrude s feelings) all that had taken place in the interview at the Rectory, asked for the answer which was to make or mar his life happiness, he heard with a thrill of joy words which in days to come would be the solace of many a bitter hour — darkened by no ordinary cloud of sorrow : For better, for worse, I am yours, Aubrey ! " " Aunt Matilda " had been more than over- joyed the day after her sisters death when her husband came into the darkened room in which she sat with her new grief, feeling life to be very desolate, and said, My dear, a young friend has come to see you. She will be our guest for a while. I know you have a warm welcome for Miss Gertrude Hastings." ''Birdie hereV exclaimed Mrs. Butler-Edg- combe with animation. Oh, how good of her to come ! " '* Do you think I could stay away any longer. Aunt Matilda ? " said the one spoken of as she threw herself into the arms of the weeping woman. And the devoted husband said after- wards it was a sight worth living to see — the meeting between the bereaved sister and the young girl so associated in years that were passed and gone with the dear one mourned. 112 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Your people, what will they say ? " whispered Matilda, after a few moments had elapsed. I do not think we need trouble about that question," said Gertrude, lightly. "Once they felt empowered to make laws for my life, and I did my best to obey. But I am no longer a child at home ; I have to think and plan for myself in other ways, why not in this ? You and dear Aunt Maria did so much for me when I was a girl, I can never be grateful enough; and, please, if you will let me, I am going to stay with you over the funeral and as long as you want me. I know it is what Aunt Maria would like, and Mr. Butler- Edgcombe says he will be glad to have me at the Manor House; and you, dear Aunt Matilda, you will not hurry me away ? " *' Birdie, child, how could I be other than glad to have you, when I have longed so for you ever since you did not come as usual?" said Mrs. Butler- Edgcombe, tearfully. And at this point her husband withdrew and left the two friends together. Later Aubrey Rice found his way to the Manor House. He was by no means unmindful of the fact that it was the house of mourning, but he was glad to openly discuss new schemes and plans which had very unexpectedly found an entrance into his life, and required prompt decision. AN ANGRY RECTOR It had been the wish of an old Quaker friend> when dying, that Aubrey Rice should one day take his place in a large drapery establishment in the West-end of London. Only a few months previously his only son, an Oxford man, had lost his life in a snowdrift on the Alps. The position he would have occupied in the firm of Catchpool Brothers was open for some one introduced by his father. Presumably it should have been one whose previous associa- tion with a drapery business had given the necessary qualification and training. But ex- ceptions were occasionally arranged, and Mr. Horace Gurney, junior partner in the firm of Catchpool Brothers, petitioned that Aubrey Rice might serve his apprenticeship to a trade which would be new to him, by starting as junior assistant, the partnership to be effected after the expiration of three years. Aubrey Rice saw the advantages to be gained after the probation, when his position would entitle him to rule and reign over no small kingdom, whereas financially he would be better off to-day than if remaining in his present office. Much to gain and nothing to lose, saving and excepting Society's smile, about which he was really at heart quite unmindful. However, until he had heard what Gertrude had to say, Aubrey left the matter an open question. Her very prompt and definite decision for him to 114 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY accept the call to be a tradesman removed all doubt from his own mind as to the wisdom of the step. Mr. Hastings' opposition irritated, but otherwise had no weight with him. The week following Miss Maria Edgcombe's funeral, which he attended with Gertrude, Aubrey left his old work and commenced his new. Meanwhile Gertrude had paid a visit to the Rectory, and, in spite of her mother's inter- vention and remonstrance with her father, had received her final dismissal from her childhood s home, unless she consented absolutely to there and then discard Aubrey Rice. She was allowed three days in which to consider. CHAPTER XI AUBREY RICE IN NEW SURROUNDINGS Aubrey Rice found much to try both his courage,, and temper in the new experiences which came into his Hfe as a business man." He had early to discover that, with the highest ideals of such a life and vocation, his world had grown smaller by the narrowing influences amidst which he found himself placed. In his previous work the need for close application to his own special division of an insurance office's routine labour had meant attention to detail of a kind which precluded much intercourse with his fellow-clerks. His own immediate work was before him, and no one shared his responsi- bility in connection with it. The task imposed, however hum-drum it might become, was still of a mental order. Figures and facts " had pretty well summed up the lines upon which his mind had to travel day by day. The very pre- cision with which he took and vacated his seat at the desk, the punctual start and the exact ending of his toil, with the natural rebound when office hours were over, and the readiness to devote his unspent energies of life upon 4 Il6 THE ROMANCE OF AN 'EMERGENCY interests which lay outside his work — all this had meant to Aubrey Rice a well-disciplined but by no means limited existence. But everything was different when he became a draper's assistant. At first his lot was cast entirely ''in the establishment itself"; in other words, he was on his feet all day, a learner in the various departments of the business proper, coming in closer contact with human nature in twenty-four hours than he had hitherto done in a lifetime. The vapid talk, the aimless, object- less lives of the ordinary shop youths completely astonished him, while the tendency at all hours to find excuse to absent themselves for a few moments to get a "freshener up," otherwise a "nip" — spirits being more to the majority than beer — distinctly alarmed him. In vain he tried to analyse the cause of the apparent deterioration of character of those engaged in a business to which he had per- sonally brought very high ideals. Was it that men could not stand the details which made such slight appeal to their mental powers and faculties ? Was it that the constant effort to remain calm and unconcerned under the fretting and irritating influence of some customer hard to please made demands upon nervous energy which meant not occasional but incessant mind- weariness and exhaustion ? Aubrey was conscious, in the early days of AUBREY RICE IN NEW SURROUNDINGS II 7 his change, of feeling unduly tired physically and depressed mentally; yet, for at least twelve hours out of every twenty-four he was his own master, and able to brace himself up by bodily exercise and happy contact with literature, which at all times took the place, with him, of congenial society. How easy it would be to slip and slide into general deterioration of character if the hours of leisure should chance to be given to that which had no power to uplift and improve ! He made a note of these, his first impressions — which time only served to deepen — hoping the day would come when he would be in a position to use very direct influence in this special matter. Much was done by the Firm by way of providing good literature. Catchpool Brothers had always studied the comfort and general welfare of their employes, and lectures were occasionally given during the winter months in the dining-hall of an attractive and elevating character ; but it was easy to find excuse for non-attendance — quite two-thirds of the young men were conspicuous by their absence. Even had Her Majesty the Queen honoured them by holding a reception in the dining-hall it is doubtful whether many would have cared to attend it. To get out into the open air, absolutely free from the building in which they spent their hours of business — to Il8 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY look upon Other faces than those by which they had been surrounded all day — to breathe air which did not convey the thought of "woollens" and ''long cloths," or the faint perfume of ribbons and laces — this was to live. Short of this was to continue the existence which had started when the day s work began. Aubrey's idea gravitated rather towards creating outside interests which, while taking these young fellows away from the atmosphere of business life, would yet fully occupy their leisure. A few enthusiasts amongst their number, and it would be quite natural, he believed, for an object to be made sufficiently alluring to attract even the normally indifferent man to action. But whatever was done by way of good influence must be attempted upon the individual. Wholesale measures had their place, but philanthropy needed to be worked on a retail basis if the special need of the special man were to be met. "What's going on?" inquired Aubrey, one morning, as he came upon .a knot of young fellows talking eagerly in a department which offered special facilities for "gossip groups" should no customers chance to be there. "It's Stanley Pritchard up to his games again," said one of the older men — a buyer — stepping from behind the counter, where he was busy with a junior assistant marking off various AUBREY RICE IN NEW SURROUNDINGS II 9 goods for which he was responsible, and approaching Aubrey. It's a thousand pities," he added, and his tones were more sympathetic than severe ; ''he has been frightfully unsteady of late, and yet there never was a young fellow of greater promise than Stanley Pritchard six years ago when he first came to business." To what do you attribute his change ? What has he been up to now ? " asked Aubrey. I think, to answer your questions as you put them, that he never should have come here. He is a young man that, as far as I can see, gravitates towards the bad. He needs planting in absolutely good surroundings, and of more limited dimensions than a business such as ours here. Under the eye of a good man, braced up by two or three definitely strong and right- minded fellow-clerks, Pritchard would have done well enough — at least, that's my opinion ; but here, if there has been one young fellow more inclined to go wrong than another, in less than a week Pritchard would become his bosom friend. It's only a few months ago that we had an awful set-out which led to a young man's dismissal." " And Pritchard was mixed up in the trouble, and yet is still here ? " said Aubrey. ''Yes. You see," continued the speaker, lowering his voice, and so turning that he stood with his back to the group of young I20 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY men engaged in animated conversation, **he happens to be a family connection of our senior partner, and he is allowed a few indulgences. By the way, it was thought he would be put forward for the position you occupy, Mr. Rice. As an old hand here I happen to know your prospects in coming here. Stanley feels he owes you a grudge in some way ; he aimed to be where you are, and worked steadily for a while, and made every one believe in his complete reformation ; but there, he has been up to his old games again, and no one knows what the end will be this time." You have yet to tell me what his old games are," said Aubrey, greatly interested in the young man to whom he had been in some way, it appeared, a rival. " He's fond of card-playing, and when he has half a chance he goes in for gambling. More often than not he wins just enough to keep up an excitement. Now and again he gets unduly elated with success, and takes 'too much,' and then no matter who comes in his way he is ready to fight them. He got into the hands of the police last night, and some of these young fellows have been clubbing together to bail him out this morning. They are awfully fond of him, and you will notice that if they can serve him to-day by doing his work — for which he won't be very fit — and keeping him out of the AUBREY RICE IN NEW SURROUNDINGS 12 1 governor's way, they will make every effort. After all, Pritchard is not a bad fellow at heart ; if only he would leave card-playing and drinking alone, he might have a chance." At this moment the group of young fellows whose eager talking had arrested Aubrey's attention suddenly dispersed. Like magic each returned to his special locality behind the counter, and all were as busy as possible when the senior partner of the firm walked leisurely through the department, and bowed his acknow- ledgment to the respectful Good morning, sir," of Mr. Buncer, the man who had been talking to Aubrey. You here, Rice ? " he said, and his tone implied he was not altogether pleased. Mr. Everet- Arnold had never been too pleased with Aubrey, whose connection with the firm was not by any means agreeable to him. He would have preferred to place his second son, when of suitable age, in the position Aubrey Rice was in training to fill. True, his junior partner had the full right to establish the man chosen by himself in that position, but after the death of his son it had been as good as settled in Mr. Everet-Arnold's mind that no one would be brought forward ; hence the way was open for the son alluded to. Thus when, just before his death, Mr. Gurney had sent for him and ex- plained his reasons for wishing Aubrey Rice to I 122 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY succeed to the position his son s death had left open, there was nothing for it but to agree to the plan. At the same time Mr. Everet- Arnold never felt quite at ease with the one whose advent into the firm had frustrated his own parental schemes. Aubrey knew instinctively that he was not a favourite with the senior partner, but he hoped to earn his esteem as time went on. The man- ner in which the question was put, ''You here, Rice ? " also convinced Mr. Buncer of the fact which he had from the first suspected. '' I came in the discharge of a duty, sir," Aubrey replied, with some display of spirit, " but I plead guilty to having taken longer than I need have done. I will be more careful not to waste time in future." "You will do well to be careful. Rice," said the senior partner, coldly. ''You will find your training as a clerk, when presumably you had plenty of time for gossip, is not likely to do you good service here. Exactness and promptitude, sir, are our watchwords as business men. If you have to visit a department on some express errand, get through your work with speed and go away; one loiterer makes many." Aubrey's cheeks flushed under the implied reproof. He, however, kept his temper, and, nodding to Mr. Buncer, beat a hasty retreat as Mr. Everet-Arnold continued his peregrinations AUBREY RICE IN NEW SURROUNDINGS 1 23 through the spacious establishment of Catchpool Brothers. Long before the day was over Aubrey had forgotten the annoyance which moved him to a good deal of inward anger at the moment, but he did not forget that one, Stanley Pritchard, a young man about his own age, and — for he found an opportunity of getting an introduction to him in the dinner time — not unlike himself in height and figure, was running every chance of wasting his life. What could he do to prevent it ? CHAPTER XII A BANK HOLIDAY VISITOR Mrs. Rice was keeping her bed with a cold ; nothing to make her son anxious, but the fact was in itself sufficient to determine his move- ments for the August bank holiday. He would stay at home, and the old servant might take herself off for the day, a privilege gratefully accepted. But for this arrangement Aubrey would have spent the holiday with Gertrude in her Vicarage home. He contrived to see her for a few hours almost every Saturday, and once he had met her in town and brought her down to see his mother. The experiment had not answered. Mrs. Rice had simply stared at her future daughter- in-law, and maintained a grave silence all the time she was in the house. When addressed by Aubrey she only replied by nodding assent or shaking her head to imply the reverse. Gertrude was much struck by the pathetic scene, and her heart glowed with sympathy for Aubrey, condemned to live every day with one whose mental condition was so depressing. It needed all his assurances that '*love lightened A BANK HOLIDAY VISITOR 1 25 the burden " to remove from her mind the weight of sadness which settled upon it as she realised what this sorrow must mean to him. Her visit had been shortened, and never repeated ; yet, strange to say, a week later and Mrs. Rice asked her faithful servant where the pretty lady was," enjoining upon her not to let her come again until Mr. Harold had returned ! The bank holiday was drawing to a close when a ring at the front door bell led Aubrey to go downstairs to interview a visitor. To his great astonishment, and not in any way to his displeasure, he found it to be Stanley Pritchard. Hitherto Aubrey s advances towards the young man whom he longed to help into a steadier life had signally failed. Pritchard evidently had no intention of growing too intimate with his rival. Like all minds weakened by self- indulgence, he retained a strong prejudice — daily increasing under the pressure of thought centring itself upon it — against the man who had, he believed, shadowed his prospects in life. The subject had never been mentioned between them, but had Stanley Pritchard said openly, Rice, I dislike you immensely," he could scarcely have gone further to prove what his mannerism plainly asserted to Aubrey when they chanced to meet. Hence to find him at the door when he 126 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Opened it, in answer to the bell, was a great surprise to Aubrey. The next minute and he was telling himself it was the reward of his labour. Stanley had at length been won to believe that he cared for him and wished him well. Do you mind coming up to my den ? " he said after the first surprised greeting was over. " I am housekeeper and nurse combined to-day. My poor mother is slightly ill, and I have induced her to keep her bed. My room is next to hers, but if we talk quietly we shall not disturb her. Do you mind coming up ? " You are awfully kind," said Stanley as he followed Aubrey up the staircase, and he trod softly and spoke in hushed tones. Aubrey looked in upon his mother before drawing to the door which shut her room from his ; then he sat down after seeing Pritchard in the most comfortable chair which his den " afforded. I am very glad to see you, my dear fellow," Aubrey said, warmly ; he was impressed by the fact that Stanley felt it worth calling upon him on bank holiday, and at once saw an oppor- tunity of getting some influence over him ; but how did you find my address ? " The cashier gave it me," said Stanley, colouring. Oh, then, you intended coming down before you left business on Saturday," said Aubrey ; why did you not tell me at the time ? " A BANK HOLIDAY VISITOR 1 27 ''It was after you had gone," said Stanley. I happened to tell Warburton I expected to be this way to-day. I have an aunt lives quite close to you — Mrs. Spinot, of Clive Villa West — suppose you don't know her ? and he said 'why, Mr. Rice lives near there,' so he gave me your address." "Then you have come down to spend the day with your aunt — is that it? and you thought you would look me up ? " Aubrey felt there was some hesitation in Stanley's manner, and he spoke more to put him at his ease than to get information. " No ; I haven't been to see my aunt yet," was the reply. " The fact is," he jerked out, nervously, "I'm in a little trouble, and I came to you to ask your help. I know we've not been much more than strangers to each other, but I feel you're the man of all others I respect, and I can tell you my troubles as I couldn't tell any one else." Aubrey brightened at this. Surely the opportunity longed for had come. Stanley's willingness to repose confidence in him was a positive pleasure at that moment, with his mind set upon being of some service to the young man. " Suppose you start by telling me your trouble," said Aubrey, and he threw himself back in his chair, prepared to listen. 128 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ''Well, you see," said Stanley, reddening, *' I've been trying to keep straight lately. The fact is, I see what a fool I've been, and I'm determined to do better, but I'm pestered to death by an old chum, down in his luck, poor chap, to whom I owe a ten-pound note, and for the life of me I don't know which way to look for it ! My fiftieth cousin twice removed, Mrs. Everet-Arnold, advanced me this month's screw and next, to help me out of a little difficulty which has no connection with the present one. I haven't the face to go to her again, and my home folks are awfully poor. Dad's been ill for the last two years, and an officer's half-pay does not go far ; then my mother would break her heart if she thought I was in debt." " I scarcely see how I can spare you that sum," said Aubrey, as Stanley Pritchard paused. I am not too well off myself, and I have to save every penny I can put together as I hope to be married in twelve months or so." " Lucky beggar!" said Stanley, warmly. " I wish I'd your hopes. I've been engaged for the last three years to a jolly little girl, an all- round good sort, one who'll do what she likes with me one of these days ; but there, Fve no prospect of marrying — that is, not much before I'm forty at the rate I am going on now — " ''But, Pritchard, you must stop the * going on ' to which you refer. You have surely done A BANK HOLIDAY VISITOR 129 with sowing wild oats ; for the little girl's sake you must settle down into a staid, sensible fellow ! " Ton my word, Rice, but that's just what I want to do, and nothing will help me better than getting quit of my debt to my old chum, for he's always looking me up, and go or come where he will, he carries a pack of cards in his pocket, and he gets me clean into a game before I know where I am ! " " I think you will ha^^e to sign the pledge against drink and cards before I can even think of helping you with money," said Aubrey, thoughtfully. With all my heart ! " said Pritchard, warmly. ''You know I will do anything in the world for a fellow I respect." It seemed to Aubrey at that moment a good plan to secure Stanley's pledge ; it might be some restraint upon him in the future, and at least it would give him further opportunity of cultivating the acquaintance of the poor fellow. So, after a little considering, Aubrey drew up an agreement worded briefly but definitely, and Stanley Pritchard signed it — his own signature appearing below as witness. Then Mrs. Rice tapped on the wall, and Aubrey went quickly to her assistance. It was quite five minutes before his return. Stanley Pritchard had spent his time looking round 130 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY with marked curiosity and interest. He might have been a private detective, so carefully did he lift things up from desk and table and place them back again exactly into their right places. A blotting book caught his attention. It was one Gertrude had sent Aubrey as a birth- day present. The firm cover — rosewood, with soft leather let in at the back — was lined with watered silk, upon which could be seen a few ink stains, due to the fact of the case being closed upon a newly-written letter. Stanley was much attracted by the strange lines placed backwards, with mere hints of what they were intended for. An unfinished M " was allied with an imperfect ''y," but the word "dear" stood out intact, only a shade or two lighter than it would have been upon the original letter, and smudged as would be natural when a silky substance had come in contact with half-dried ink. Stanley Pritchard was standing by the win- dow, carelessly glancing at the view of back- gardens and chimney pots, when Aubrey returned. ''Ton my word, I feel awfully in your way," he said, in tones of apology. I think I told you my mother's servant was out for a holiday," said Aubrey. You said you were housekeeper, or some- thing of that sort," replied Stanley, ''so, of course, I drew my own conclusions. About A BANK HOLIDAY VISITOR that ten pounds, shall I give you an I O U for it?" "Not necessarily," said Aubrey. ''I shall have to write a cheque, and I will get you to sign the counterfoil, where I will put * borrowed.' When do you think of repaying it ? " "In six weeks' time from now. Will that do?" " Certainly ; I shall be glad of it then. Meanwhile you will keep this pledge which you have signed in your pocket, and when tempted to break it just read it over. That sort of thing has helped many a man to stand firm." " Thanks, awfully ; I won't forget. 'Pon my word, you're a brick. But you'll not tell my fiftieth cousin's husband — otherwise Mr. Everet- Arnold — what you've done for me, will you ? It would make it a little awkward." Aubrey promised to make no mention to any one about the small transaction. He wrote out the cheque, and Stanley Pritchard signed the counterfoil under the word "borrowed." Then, after more thanks and more promises of an amended life, he withdrew, leaving Aubrey to wonder how far his words might be accepted as the sincere purpose of his heart. Anyway he felt encouraged by the fact that Pritchard had sought him out and confided his difficulty to him. CHAPTER XIII A LOST LATCH-KEY Mr. Buncer was uneasy. Clearly things were not going very well with Aubrey Rice, and, personally, he liked the young man, and wished for him a safe arrival at the destination he had in view, namely, a junior partnership in the firm of Catchpool Brothers. Mr. Buncer's anxieties were based upon hints thrown out by Stanley Pritchard, who, to all appearances, had at length turned over most completely a new leaf. Do you notice how the governor hates our friend Rice ? " Stanley asked Mr. Buncer one day. " I don't wonder very much either. He's more than a bit of a prig. He has such a very superior air. Why, he found two apprentices having an innocent toss-up the day before yesterday, and he gave them a lecture as long as your arm — of which the youngsters made high game when he had passed on." I think he was right," said Mr. Buncer. " Everything has a beginning. Destroy the acorn and it can't grow into an oak tree." Well, every one to his taste," said Stanley, 132 A LOST LATCH-KEY sneeringly. I, for one, should never like to see Aubrey Rice master here. He'll turn the lot of us into pious hypocrites in no time. I could a tale unfold, but I don't mean to split unless the unexpected happens, and then, perhaps, I'll have to astonish the natives by speaking out a bit of my mind. By the way, what's happened ? Has the young man grown suddenly rich that he can afford to be married this autumn instead of waiting as he intended until next year ? " I think we won't discuss Mr. Rice's affairs, Pritchard," said Mr. Buncer, at length roused to stop this idle gossip. For my part, I like the young man very much. He has always inspired confidence with me, but I can't help seeing he's not just in favour with the governor." ''You wouldn't wonder if you knew all I know," was Stanley's reply, such stress laid upon the words that their insinuating meaning was painfully apparent. It was after this conversation with Stanley Pritchard that Mr. Buncer felt so uneasy in his mind. He determined to seize the first opportunity of getting a word with Mr. Rice. Without appearing to be curious, he could soon gather whether Pritchard's information — re- specting his coming marriage, for instance — had any truth in it. 134 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY . He was not long before he found his oppor- tunity. It was late in September. The autumn season was in full swing. The firm of Catchpool Brothers was unusually busy, the well-dressed windows, for one of which Aubrey had to be responsible (the result of his effort in the decorative line being a charming work of art), gathering many admirers from passers-by, and bringing many customers into the shop. Perhaps few realise, when gazing into the windows of a high-class drapery establishment, at what cost of labour the ''goods" have been thus daintily exposed to view. The greatest authority on dress — at least, so a Parisienne lady of to-day would assure us — has the reputation of having started life as an errand boy in one of our largest Regent Street houses. Chancing one day to pick out from his sweep- ings a variety of colours, he placed them on the counter, calling attention to their beautiful blending. His master chanced to see what had been done, and from that hour that young lad was called to fame. He had a gift — the gift of colour-blending. His efforts had no place for failure. Intuitively he saw what would best please and rest the eye, and he worked accord- ingly, until in time he became the one authority before whom all women of fashion (not to say frivolity) passed in sober earnest to know if he considered their costume ''in order" and "good taste." A LOST LATCH-KEY Something of this gift Aubrey Rice must have possessed, for he quickly caught the idea of dressing a window, and won lavish praise from many to whom such work meant only toil and failure. " I have been admiring your handiwork, Mr. Rice," said Buncer one morning, as they chanced to meet on their way to the dining hall. I have seen a good deal of window-dressing in my day, but nothing that took my fancy more than yours ! " Aubrey Rice laughed. I had no idea I had any taste in that direction ; no knowing where I should be by now if I had started earlier." Is it true you are soon to be married, Mr. Rice ? I thought you had no intention of being so until next year." This was a bold question for Buncer to put. He had no right of friendship which could justify curious questions about Aubrey's private affairs. Mr. Rice coloured, and he did not speak at ease when replying— I am expecting to be married before next month's out. It would be interesting to know how this piece of news has reached you, Mr. Buncer ? " Oh, nothing out of the way in Catchpool Brothers for rumours to get wind," he replied, evasively. "I heard it just now in a way that 136 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY might be complimentary to your success, for it comes quite naturally to associate getting on in life with settling down. Perhaps you have had a fortune left you, Mr. Rice ? " If the previous question had been more or less suggestive of presumption on Buncer's part, Aubrey felt this one to be almost impertinent. Although seeking to be on the best of terms with every one associated with the business which had so strangely become his lot, he had never encouraged familiarity ; hence even Mr. Buncer, whom he had hitherto held in great respect, could not be expected to make any demands upon his personal confidence. " I am afraid I must decline to discuss my private affairs with you, Mr. Buncer," he said, coldly, and he turned round and walked away from the dining hall, which they were at that moment entering. As Buncer went in and took his seat at the table his thoughts turned instinctively to Pritchard's insinuations against Rice's character. To do Buncer justice, he was by no means a pry- ing, meddling - with - the - affairs - of - other - people kind of man. He had assumed the curious friend " from motives which were in no sense to be condemned. He wanted to clear up in his own mind the doubt instilled into it by Pritchard's words. He wanted to be in a posi- tion to say to that young man, ''You are A LOST LATCH-KEY labouring under a delusion ; Mr. Aubrey Rice is all square and above board, and if the governor does happen to be prejudiced against him, it cannot injure his upright character." But — and here came the pity of it — Aubrey Rice's words were not just what the sensitive Buncer had expected them to be, and his manner was distinctly unfavourable. It was about a fortnight after this that Aubrey, who had scarcely spoken to Mr. Buncer since the unfortunate interview, beyond the "good morning " which courtesy claimed when they met for the first time in the day, came up to him and said, There is a little mystery about a lost latch-key. When I reached home yesterday afternoon I missed mine from my greatcoat pocket. I remember seeing it about noon when I went to the lobby to get a memorandum book from my coat, and I suppose I must by accident have put it back into some other coat pocket. I have been enquiring of Jones, and he says your coat-peg has been moved and is next to mine. Have you seen anything of my key ? " " Nothing at all, Mr. Rice ; but don't let me be too sure it isn't there. Will you be good enough to examine my pockets for yourself? " When you have a minute to spare, if you will come with me," replied Aubrey ; and seeing the senior partner in the distance, he beat a K 138 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY hasty retreat. No need to court his displeasure. He felt every day how unfortunate it was that a man with whom he would by-and-bye in the natural order of events have very close business connections was so disastrously hostile to him. The opportunity to examine Buncer's pockets of his greatcoat came late in the afternoon, but nothing was to be found of the missing key. " It is a singular loss," said Aubrey, looking perplexed. " Of course it can be easily repaired ; that's one blessing ! " You have, of course, well examined a/l the pockets of your own coat," said Buncer, sympathetically. Yes, all," replied Aubrey, as he spoke, taking the coat down from its peg and holding it bottom upwards, giving it a good shake. A stray copper or two fell out, a pair of gloves came well to view at the mouth of the large pocket, and — as if late to make up its mind to appear — down came the missing latch-key to the ground ! Well, I never ! " exclaimed Buncer, looking well pleased. Where can it have come from.^^" said Aubrey, who looked very much mystified. From a pocket you forgot to examine, Mr. Rice," said Buncer, laughing. It's an old way of making a mistake. I congratulate you that the missing article has come to light." A LOST LATCH-KEY " But it has not come to light ; I mean something needs explaining," said Aubrey, colouring. ''It was not there when I got home yesterday afternoon, nor when I left this morning. Some one has been playing me a trick." A practical joke, rather," said Buncer, look- ing amused. Jones is in charge here ; he will be in the secret and, perhaps, supply the motive." But Jones repeated, even with anger, that he knew nothing whatever about it, and ventured to ask if it were worth all this fuss and parade about a paltry key which could any day be replaced for ninepence or tenpence ? The incident was altogether forgotten by Aubrey by the following week, when all thought and attention were claimed by plans and affairs incidental to his wedding. Although not expecting this to take place until some day in the next year, he was convinced that under the new circumstances which had arisen in Gertrude's life — yet to be explained to the reader — it was not only right but best to arrange matters promptly ; and, after all, what joy it would be to settle down ! If he had a wish that it might have been a larger and better furnished house to which he brought Gertrude as his bride than, the one for so many years the home of his mother and himself and 140 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY the faithful servant, he set it aside. Gertrude would understand, and perhaps be happier for a while in the smaller house ; and in every way changes were undesirable for his aged mother. ''Would it be convenient for you to pay back the ;^io borrowed in August, Pritchard ? " Aubrey asked, two days before leaving business for ten days' holiday — the senior partner had been informed of his coming marriage when permission was asked to anticipate the few days allowed at Christmas by taking them now, and, in a moment of generosity, had doubled the privileged time. "Awfully sorry, but cruelly hard up!" was the reply. I mean," he added quickly, as if wishing to remove any false impression of poverty, '' I only have enough for my imme- diate wants ; no spare cash since I gave up the card-table. There are trials even in keep- ing straight. I shall always feel grateful to you for putting me right, and if you '11 trust me until next pay day I'll give you as much as I can spare." " For your own sake, clear the debt as soon as you can," said Rice, moving away, some one at the moment claiming his attention. " Does the cur mean that as a threat ?" said Pritchard to himself. *' A nice Christian thing to say. Sneak ! I '11 be even with him yet. Does the fool, I wonder, think I'm a little A LOST LATCH-KEY 141 namby-pamby baby to give up my cards and betting at his bidding ? Ah, a good joke ! " No. Aubrey Rice did not think Pritchard had given up either card playing or betting (which giving up, by the way he measured life, would have meant strength, not weakness), and because he pretended to have done so he lost heart over him, and knew, practically, that the £\o lent to him would never be paid back. Aubrey did not affect to keep a diary, but he had a fairly thick volume intended for one, and in this were various entries, for the most part quaint sayings or incidents which had struck him as worth remembering. Very occasionally he scribbled down an impression made upon his own mind by some passing event. That evening he wrote in his note-book — There are queer and various shaped devils, even supposing their colour is uniform. Stanley P. s tribe is peculiarly twisted. He thinks he deceives me, but I haven't the courage to tell him I see through him. He certainly is a splendid actor. May God forgive him ! It's an awful thing for a young man, of his own deliberate accord, to throw his own life away. I am sorry he ever came here ; the memory of that visit casts a shadow over my den. A very little more and I should hate the fellow." CHAPTER XIV A GRAVE BARGAIN Before going back to Gertrude Hastings, whom we left forming a decision which would entitle her to her Rectory home or banish her from it, namely, whether or not she would consent to break off her engagement with Aubrey Rice after he had been called to exchange an office in the city for a position in a house of business, we must make the acquaintance of one who cannot be altogether ignored in the telling of this story. We find her some three months previous to the events narrated in the last chapter — one day in the last week of July — in a house (in which it was evident she had only apartments) in Guildford Street, Bloomsbury. She was anticipating an interview which, it would seem, made great demands upon her temper, for every now and then she clenched her small hand, or, walking to the window, stamped her little foot, either action suggestive of the determination to brace herself up for some impending conflict. At length the one expected arrived. She saw him coming down the street in one of her 142 A GRAVE BARGAIN journeys to the window. Then, with a hasty glance at a mirror which hung over the fire- place, assuring herself that she was looking her best — oh ! what a pretty face it was, not young. But still round and with healthy colour- ing, to which at this moment excitement had added some charm — she took her seat where she could watch the opening of the door leading into the room. A few moments later and Stanley Pritchard entered. He came in looking tired and haggard, an anguished expression upon his face, listlessness and signs of boredom in every movement and gesture. The little lady in the chair inclined her head, greeting the visitor, who had entered without . knocking, with a stately bow. " Well, Judith," said the one addressed, closing the door behind him and lolling against it for support, have come to see you at great inconvenience. Have the goodness to tell me briefly what important business made you send for me?" A nice greeting for a wife to receive after her husband s nearly six months' absence," said the little lady in the chair, stiffly. Anyway, I'll not forget my manners. Take a seat, sir," and she waved her right arm with commanding gesture towards a chair opposite to herself. Stanley moved a smaller one from its 144 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY position by the wall, and putting it down in a line with the one indicated, but some few feet further away, he sat down and said, ''You know it was agreed we should never see each other again, Judith ; what's the use of raking up old grievances ? You get your pay — the pay we mutually agreed upon — regularly ; why talk as if I had neglected you ? You know until the last day or two you had no wish to see me, and since you wrote I have not lost much time in coming. (By the way, have the good- ness to direct any letter in future to my private address. It is not safe to send to the firm ; might land me in no end of trouble ! ) " I am not likely to annoy you by a fruitless correspondence," said the little lady in the chair, and she posed her right elbow on the arm, and, supporting her chin in the palm of her hand, gazed earnestly into the young man's face. When she spoke her words fell from her lips slowly, deliberately ; they came as words are apt to come when they have been rehearsed over and over again — they lacked the ring of spontaneous originality — '* I wanted to see you now partly to tell you what I think of you, and partly to lay a plan before you which will be very much to your interest to consider — " ** Well, supposing you cut it short by leaving out your first point ? — I know pretty well what you think of me — and let me hear your proposal," A GRAVE BARGAIN said he, and there was something akin to a sneer in his tones. ''That would spoil it all," was Judith's reply. '' But," she continued, '' I will let you off mildly. You shall read what I think of you in your own admissions ! " She paused ; then, still with a fixed gaze upon Stanley, went on. '' Did you, some four years ago, during your summer holi- days in Wales, make the acquaintance of a widow and her daughter, and stuff them up with plausible tales — lies every one of them — and finally get engaged and married to that girl ? Answer, sir, did you ? " *' Yes," said Stanley, ''that is, perhaps I was not quite straightforward in telling you my posi- tion and circumstances at the time, but I was honourable enough in marrying you." " Breaking some one else's heart by doing so, cad ! " and the chin lifted itself as if in scorn, while the hand upon which it rested clenched itself and came down heavily upon the table near. " Did you persuade my mother to sell her little freehold, promising to invest the money to great advantage, and finally robbing her of every shilling of it — say, did you or did you not do this ? " and again the clenched hand struck the table near. " I— I—" "It's 'yes' or 'no,'" said Judith, sternly. " Confess, sir, have I not stated the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ? " 146 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Yes, with slight exaggerations — a woman's way of putting things!" said Stanley, with scorn. Silence ! It's not for you to teach me how to be truthful ! You don't know even the A B C of that language. Wait, I haven't done. Are you, having ruined my life and happiness, besides breaking the heart of an innocent girl who loved you to devotion, and to whom you were engaged when you posed as my lover, are you at the present moment making advances — what you call love — to Mr. Everet-Arnold's only daughter, quite oblivious of the existence of our marriage lines, which my mother has in her safe keeping ? Say — don't lie to me, for I can read you through and through — is what I say a fact ? " ''You were ill in May," stammered Stanley, in confusion. "The doctor thought you would not live. I was only anticipating a freedom I expected soon to be mine. How on earth did you get to hear of it, Judith ? " " That has nothing to do with it," she replied, tapping her little foot upon the ground. "If I care to make plans to counteract your wicked- ness, that's my account. Enough to tell you your base and brutal character is known, fully known, to those who will enlighten Ruth Everet-Arnold, if the need comes for her to know. Just, in passing, let me ask what you think of a man who could act in this heathen, this wickedly profane way ? " A GRAVE BARGAIN Stanley Pritchard literally quailed under his wife's searching glance. " I think he's a fool," he said at length, as he waited in vain for the pause to be ended. Then you quite understand you have to promise me on oath you will not tamper with the affections of Ruth Everet- Arnold ? You understand the penalty ? At a sign from me, and the whole truth comes out, and you will be — and most deservedly; — blackballed for life. Promise ; vow. Quick ! I have only a few moments to spare for this interview, and I have much more to say yet." I promise you, Judith. I'll not see more of Ruth than I can help, and I'll not forget — you hold our marriage lines ! " I should like to believe you," said the little lady, with a sigh, ''but it is absolutely impossible. Still, I shall have my eye upon you, and if I see any need to tell my story, i/ wtl/ be told, remember, and the world will know what kind of a man Stanley Pritchard has been and is ! But, now to business." She rose from her seat and drew a step nearer to Stanley. When she next spoke, her tones were lower and intensely earnest. '* You robbed my mother of four hundred and seventy-five pounds in hard cash, the sum realised by the sale of her little home. You allow me a week, £^2 a year. If I live to 14^ THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY be ninety, counting my age now at thirty-five, you will have spent two thousand eight hundred and sixty pounds upon me. Add that to four hundred and seventy-five, and you get a total of three thousand three hundred and thirty-five pounds. Now, I have a proposal to m.ake. You may square up all accounts between us, that is, the money due to my mother on her freehold and the sum due to me as long as I may live (and it is bound to be well over ninety, for we are a long-lived family, you see) — I will let you off everything for five hundred pounds paid down within the next three months. I will sign a legal agreement releasing you from any further monetary responsibilities, and I will take myself off with my mother to the colonies, where we have both a pressing invitation to mingle our lots with an aged brother of my poor father." But how am I to find £^oo ? " gasped Stanley, who, to speak truly, was looking intensely relieved by his wife's proposition. Ages ago he had grown tired of her, and barely six months previous to this interview he had very gladly agreed to a separation on the ground of incompatibility of temper. It was always more or less a cause of irritation to think of his wife as living so near to him. He had told so many untruths in order to win her. A born actor, and with no sense of truth, A GRAVE BARGAIN 149 Stanley Pritchard was gifted — as fortunately few are — in that fatal power of personating an altogether imaginary character. He lived in a fictitious world, peopled with fictitious people. He had a rich uncle somewhere to the front, and a godfather who made him his special care. For himself, he was well to do ; his people were abroad. He would have gone with them, only his position in a wholesale firm in the city was far too good to be lightly thrown up. It was enough to know the Firm had, owing to his recent illness, given him six months leave of absence upon full pay — twenty-five pounds a month — to show in what estimation they held him, and so forth. It had been a cruel awakening to his wife to find that the messages read to her from time to time (before her marriage and after) from his parents were gross fabrications. In a moment of sudden anger he had let fall the fact that his people knew nothing whatever of his move- ments, and he never intended they should. (This was some time after they had come up to live in London.) At the time of their separation Judith had had good cause to regard much of what had been told her previous to her marriage as a cleverly arranged tissue of lies. Amongst other things her husband was some eight years younger than he had represented himself to be. His certificate of birth had 150 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY been sought by a lawyer, and his parentage duly ascertained ; this was in measure satis- factory, but in no way agreeing with previous representations. It was also discovered that a certain Colonel Silver, the reputed godfather from whom cheques had certainly come from time to time, was actually in existence. Beyond this Judith and her mother knew next to nothing of the man whose handsome face and pleasant manners had won their friendship at a time when he was supposed to be recovering from the long illness referred to, and after very troubled experiences, in which they had proved him to be a man of most unscrupulous character, with that tendency to drift downwards which is so fatal to hope in the future, the separation had been decided upon as the lesser of two evils. If Stanley Pritchard was bent upon his own ruin, he must go alone and not take his wife and mother-in-law with him ! " The freedom which this separation had brought the mother and daughter from the daily possibility of evil had been a great relief after the years of turmoil and unrest. Stanley himself was too much steeped in selfishness to be otherwise than glad to escape restrictions which the poorest attempt at home life had imposed, but he had always regretted that his wife and mother-in-law had remained in London. Hence the plan suggested by Judith came A GRAVE BARGAIN as a sudden ray of satisfaction although the conditions were somewhat alarming. How am I to find ;^500? " he gasped. Insure your life ; borrow of some rich friend to whom you can pay back a week — my pay hitherto ; as broad as it is long," was the quick answer. ''You understand my bargain admits of no modification? I want the ;^500, and I must have it, the sooner the better, but anyway before the winter sets in. You have ruined our happi- ness, spoilt our lives ; it is the very least you can do by way of reparation. Set us free to go out of this country, right away from the bitter recollections associated with yourself." *' I will see what can be done and let you hear from me," Stanley said, after a pause in which he appeared in deep thought. *'The insurance sounds feasible enough ; if I fail there, there are other ways." ''Honourable ways, remember," said his wife, laying great stress upon the adjective. " Of course. Do you take me for — " For what I have proved you to be," replied Judith, as her husband broke off, passion making it difficult to frame his words. ''We may as well end this," he said, rising, and biting his lips. " Good-bye, Judith," he continued, nodding to her and moving towards the door. " Tell your mother I have enquired after her." 152 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY - " You have two things to remember, Stanley," said his wife ; it was the first time during that interview that she had addressed him by his Christian name. Great as the one is relating to the ;^500, the other referring to Ruth Everet- Arnold is greater. I warn you her father shall hear the whole story of our marriage if I see reason to give it ! " For heaven's sake, don't take the bread out of my mouth, Judith," exclaimed Stanley. I am in good favour with the governor to-day, and am as likely as not making my way on towards a partnership in Catchpool Brothers. I shall have very good chances if things keep straight. Why should you spoil everything by your wretched spite ? " You can go, sir," said his wife, waving her hand towards the door. The programme for our interview did not include abuse ! " Stanley lost no time in taking his departure. It was when his retreating footsteps had died away, and the closing of the hall door had announced that he had left the house, that the little lady, who had throughout the interview maintained so much dignity, threw herself on to the couch, weeping bitterly. She lay with her face downwards, buried in a cushion, which hushed her sobs into broken and muffled sounds. **Oh, Stanley, Stanley!" she wailed, **why A GRAVE BARGAIN did you come to spoil my life ? Why did you teach me to care for you, and then spurn the very love you had awakened ? Why have you taught me to think of you at your best but a hideous deception, an ugly lie ? Why has nature painted you so fair to look upon, and in your heart there lurks a devil ? I call you hateful, and I know you to be mean and despicable, yet, oh, Stanley, if I could only find one little bit of truth about you I would let you see my love is not all dead ! But never, never again shall my sweet mother be tortured by your cunning and deceitful ways. No, dear, she at least must be spared more suffering. Your five hundred pounds will take her out to those who know and love her, making her in measure independent. I can work, and will earn money with which to come home again when the right time comes — when my sweet mother can spare me. . . . Then, oh, Stanley, will it be to die of a broken heart, knowing your evil life, or to wile you back to that love which was so sweet while it lasted ? . . . But I must come ; I must be at hand should you want me. I could not let you spoil my mother's life and mine ; but some day, when it is only my own of which I have to think, who knows what might happen ? I might even tell you then how I made up the romance about Ruth Everet- Arnold, which frightened you so L 154 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY much to-day, out of a look which I saw you give her as you came out with her on your arm from the concert at St. James s Hall last week ! You never saw your poor little wife amongst the crowd, nor guessed how her ears had caught the name of Everet- Arnold when they called it out to say his carriage stopped the way ! Ruth is pretty — your own hands put her photograph in my album years ago — I am not likely to forget her, for once you confessed to liking her as a young school-girl a little . . . and I tell you, sir, that sooner than she should grow to care for you, the miserable farce we are playing shall end ! I will see the Everet- Arnolds, tell them who I am, get our marriage recognised, even though it is handicapped and fettered to-day by the legal separation ! " Thus musing, the little lady had very nearly worked herself up to a ''passion of fury," when the door of the room in which she was sitting opened, and an elderly lady entered. '' Did you get well through your painful interview, my poor child?" she said, as she lovingly kissed her daughter's fevered brow. *'Ah, I fear it has been too much for you! Oh, Judith, that we could go back to the time before he came to spoil our lives, when we were all the world to each other in our little home in Wales." "Well, we will soon be further away from A GRAVE BARGAIN I 55 our trouble, darling/' said Judith, growing suddenly very cheerful. ** Stanley has agreed to the plan about the money. I only hope his stories about his rich godfather are not as mythical as so many other facts of his are. But that he had some one to borrow it of, I should never have dared to make the suggestion. Still, supposing he has, why should we lose the money which means our freedom ? " And, for reply, Judith's mother only sighed deeply, and shook her head scornfully. To her it seemed as if her daughter's life had been hopelessly spoiled, and her own happiness, wrapped up as it had been in that of her only child's, had been ruined beyond remedy, as far as this world was concerned. Distance might a little lessen the ignominy and disgrace of a marriage so associated with all that was painful, but inasmuch as she herself had been greatly to blame in sanctioning the union before testing the young man's story, she had long ago decided that the suffering involved must be borne patiently and in silence. No exposure of their wrongs could change or substantially improve the character of the man who, whi.e so prepossessing in appearance, and with manners which ladies are apt to describe as simply enchanting," had a heart as black as ink," judged by the life which was a tissue of fabrication and deceit. 156 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Poor Mrs. Grey is not the only mother who has to regret receiving a son-in-law into the family about whose family and previous personal history far too little is known. Nor is she singular in preferring to bear her misfortunes in silence rather than take the world into her confidence. CHAPTER XV "NO answer" Miss Hastings, where are you ? " It was Daisys voice calling, and there was eagerness, if not excitement, in the tone. Gertrude was sitting in a summer-house at the end of the Vicarage garden. It was a glorious day in April (of the year of whose autumn we have spoken in the last chapter), one that comes to us in the midst of easterly winds and morning frosts, to encourage hope for the summer not far distant, probably to give place on the morrow to the cold which the winter had brought in and left, but all the same to be to-day enjoyed as a real and delightful pos- session. Miss Hastings had taken her book into the garden an hour ago, and had sat where her little pupils could see her from the schoolroom window, until the last ten minutes, when she had withdrawn to the summer-house, anxious to write some letters. To Daisy s question Gertrude gave quick answer by replying in her clear, sweet voice. Here, in the summer-house." And her little 157 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY pupil came bounding across the lawn, breath- less and excited, holding a telegram in her hand. For you," she said, earnestly, ''and the boy didn't stop, as there was *no answer,'" and then with the native instinct of the true lady, Daisy turned and walked some little distance away, to leave her governess to herself. Had she been a few steps nearer, and had not her little mind been occupied while watching two sparrows nest-building — eager for the same twig, quarrelling over it with all the force and fury of rival claimants — she would have heard a moan likely to have struck terror into her small heart. With a face from which every particle of colour had fled, and lips which trembled with emotion, held under control with greatest dififi- culty, Gertrude Hastings read and re-read the telegram which she held in her hand. Well might the messenger who had brought it say there was no answer." The words admitted no doubt ; they were almost brutal in their directness. They were these — Your mother died a painless death this morning, passing away in her sleep. This announcement is sent instead of a letter. Do not think of coming. Servants instructed not to admit you. — Your Father." When some weeks before Gertrude had been dismissed from the Rectory, after a very painful "no answer" 159 interview, to well consider and give her final answer as to her willingness to break off her engagement with Aubrey Rice, she had been allowed three days in which to decide between her home and her lover. That decision had gone in a letter full of courteous speech and rounded sentences, so eager had the writer been to say her say with all tenderness and consideration for her parents' feelings ; but, though gently put, her answer was most emphatic. Her choice had been made too long ago to make any change possible. She had become engaged to Aubrey Rice because she loved him ; and if she loved him then, how much more so to-day ! His special calling at the time had not been in any sense a matter influencing her affections, which had been openly and honestly won, and with her father's and mother's full sanction. Neither could the fact that her lover had ceased to be an insurance clerk and become instead a draper's assistant tend to influence her love to-day. It was to the man she was betrothed — to an honourable and upright gentle- man — not to his position in any way." To this letter her father had made curt reply. "You have made your choice; you have now to abide by it." But her mother s letter had been full of tender- ness. "It will all come right some day," she had i6o THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY written. Do not be unduly distressed about your dear father's hardness. He has been so accustomed to enforce obedience that he resents most bitterly any opposition to his will. But, my dear child, according to my judgment, you are acting as only an honourable woman could act. I see things more clearly to-day than I did once, and I could thank God in this hour of trial that you are found faithful." This letter had brought a rush of love for the usually silent mother to Gertrude's heart, and she had written warmly and gratefully, to receive a pencilled line a few days later. " Do not write again just yet ; your father still angry. It must come right in time. Meanwhile, you have your mother s love and fullest sympathy. Tell Aubrey so. And now the telegram, which required *'no answer," told Gertrude she was bereft of that mother. . . . After a few minutes Daisy returned to the summer-house to find Miss Hastings weep- ing. Quite awed by the sight of grief so terribly severe, the child was quick to fetch her mother, and then it was that Gertrude first realised the depth of that good little woman's sympathy. ''My dear Miss Hastings," she said, as she put her arm around the weeping girl, let me be all I can to you. I am neither clever nor **NO answer" i6i strong-minded, but I have some very genuine love in my heart, and until your own home is restored to you, I hope you will consider ours as yours. I am sure my Vicar will endorse every word I am saying." And thus it happened that Gertrude Hastings found, as others have so often done, that even sorrows have their compensations. Her father's anger had created the possibilities of friendship which, but for some shock to awaken, might have slumbered on unrecognised. In the days which followed, as she saw more of the force and beauty of the character which had always impressed her, but for which now she had the deepest admiration, she wondered how much of its point and power might be directly traced to the discipline of everyday struggle with poverty. She remembered when visiting a Staffordshire pottery on one occasion to have seen the ware waiting for the finishing touches of a skilled hand, whose work it was to paint upon this receptive material floral decora- tion of delicate tint and colour. How can you insure the colour lasting ? " had been the not unnatural question. And the answer was in itself a volume of suggestion. It's burnt in ; baked until there is no moving it ! " ''Ah," thought Gertrude in those days, as she watched good little Mrs. Brownlow with eyes which saw points before unobserved, *' surely 1 62 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY such characters are made beautiful with God's own colouring, burnt in in the fires of affliction The spring had long given place to summer,, and autumn had come within sight, when one morning Mrs. Brownlow came to Gertrude with a troubled face. Oh, Miss Hastings," she exclaimed, sitting down beside her and taking her hand in hers, I must tell you our news. The Vicar has met with an old colonial friend in town who urges his acceptance of that private chaplaincy in Melbourne, recently offered to him but at once declined. You will remember we told you something about it at the time, and he has actually insisted upon paying all our debts here for us to make our going possible." '' But why look troubled over such good news ? " said Gertrude in surprise ; to her own heart the very mention of paid debts brought a feeling of relief on behalf of her friend. " Because— because it would mean our parting with you, dear," said little Mrs. Brownlow, and genuine tears came into her eyes as she spoke. Then she added in a lowered voice, " Of course, you would not wish to leave England, with your marriage taking place next year, and, if we go, it must be at once — as soon as the Bishop will sanction our moving. I am wondering if your wedding could take place from Edgcombe Manor House.?" "NO answer" No, no, not from there ! " said Gertrude, with flushed cheek. I must not go to the Manor House while my father remains so bitter against me. Dear Aunt Matilda quite under- stands, and thinks as I do about it. But do not let my plans cloud the brightness of yours," she added. I am indeed glad that the Vicar and yourself are likely to have less hard times in the future than in the past," and she stooped down and kissed Mrs. Brownlow affectionately. And this explains how it happened that Gertrudes marriage was arranged for that autumn, instead, as had been previously planned, sometime during the following spring. It was a very quiet wedding, the two little girls acting as bridesmaids — some small con- solation in their genuine sorrow in parting with their beloved Miss Hastings — Mr. and Mrs. Butler- Edgcombe the only guests besides Guy Manville, who acted as "best man." "And you have not regretted your change of business," the Squire had said to Aubrey Rice as they strolled down the Vicarage garden, while "the bride" was attiring herself for her marriage, and Guy Manville was talking with the Vicar. " Only as it has affected Gertrude," was the quick reply. "Her father s displeasure has seemed to me most unjust ; and had I antici- pated it to have lasted as it has done, I 164 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY certainly should, for her sake, have hesitated to incur it. It is difficult for me, with my Quaker ancestry, and all that that means by way of ennobling business life of every kind and degree, to find excuse for the unreasonable prejudice against trade as the calling of a gentleman which exists in the Rector's mind. It seems to belittle the character of any honest mind to seriously entertain objection to an honourable calling because it is associated with a shop front instead of an office on the third floor!" **You are right, sir," said Mr. Butler- Edgcombe, emphatically; I feel entirely with you on the matter. For myself, I make every allowance for the Rector's personal antipathy to our marriage, but a little thing has come to our knowledge of late over which my wife and I have had many a quiet laugh. We are keeping it to ourselves, but I suppose it will have to come out one day. It is this, that I, once the page-boy of Edgcombe Manor and later the butler, proud of my yeoman ancestry in spite of the anger provoked when the butler became the master, discovered in tracing out my own ancestral tree — for I was curious to know if my folks had ever been other than farmers — that two centuries back a Farmer Butler married an Edgcombe, the third daughter and seventh child of a family of ten, from whom I date my NO ANSWER " 165 actual descent. So you see, it, absurdly enough, turns out " — and the Squire rubbed his hands gleefully — I have had the honour, although ignorant of the fact at the time, of marrying a very distant cousin of my own ! " " And you have actually made this discovery and kept it to yourself?" said Aubrey, with genuine surprise. " Certainly," was the reply. It might or it might not make any difference to those who have been good enough to stand out against our marriage, but at least it gives me some- thing to say, when the right time comes, about the Edgcombe blood flowing in my poor plebeian veins." I am afraid, had I been in your place. Squire," said Aubrey, warmly, I should have lost no time in bringing this fact before those whom it might influence." "Perhaps," was the reply, **it would humble my pride too much if I did this. You see," the Squire added, plucking a laurel leaf from a bush they were passing and rubbing it gently between his hands, "my views of life are in no way changed by the discovery. I rather expect that you feel as I do in these matters, Mr. Rice," and Mr. Butler- Edgcombe stood still and repeated in solemn and impressive tones the words — "The rank is but the guinea stamp. The man's the man for a' that." 1 66 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY At this moment little Daisy came tripping out into the garden in her pretty white brides- maid's dress — cashmere, trimmed with rows of baby-satin ribbon — and shyly approaching Aubrey, said, Will you please come and see —the bride?" The Squire joined the Vicar and Guy Man- ville as Aubrey, feeling very solemn and — must it be admitted ? — a little nervous, hastened with all speed to the drawing-room. This was his first meeting with Gertrude since his last visit, about a week previously. He had asked for her on his arrival, an hour ago, but only to be told she had not left her room ; and it had suddenly dawned upon him that bridegroom and bride were not supposed to meet on their wedding-day until at the marriage service the one awaited the other at the church. Hence partly his apparent nervousness when sent for to the drawing- room. Gertrude was struck by it. Are you quite well ? " she asked, anxiously, after the first greeting was over and Aubrey had praised her pretty toilette, as any other bride- groom might have done his bride's. Quite, dearest," he said, as he stooped and kissed her, **but," he added, am badly want- ing to get away for a holiday. Oh, what a restful time we will have, darling. I was thinking this morning how glad I was we "NO answer" 167 were going to Ventnor. I can quite sniff sea breezes in the mere mention of the place. I think I have found business a little trying the last week or so. The senior partner has had some very special worry, I am afraid, and — but there is no need to talk about it just now. I had forgotten this is not one of my ordinary visits, with the limited opportunity of a quiet little talk together. Gertrude, in less than an hour you will be mine, darling — mine for ever ! What do you say to that ? " Gertrude had no words, but her steady gaze of beaming happiness into Aubrey's eyes said all he wanted to know. Her thought perhaps at that moment was one of intense joy in realis- ing that the hour had arrived when she would be no more homeless, but protected and cared for by one upon whose love and tender dealing she would have some claim. Gertrude never knew until her father thrust her so cruelly from her home how much it had been to her. With friends who had been quick to offer her hospitality — the Manor House people and the good Vicar and his wife more especially— -she knew her position was not hopeless isolation, but she had missed the spot to which she had a claim by right of heritage, as one misses the existence of the actual home when circumstances have made it necessary to store the furniture and travel for a while. 1 68 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY No wonder then that the thought of her marriage meant to her the restored joys of a home she could call her own. She looked very charming in her bridal dress, a soft tinted brown merino with velvet trim- mings of darker shade. The scarlet poppies and wheat ears, a millinery decoration very much in vogue at the time, suited well the colouring of her hair and complexion, brighten- ing the general effect of her appearance, while giving a pleasing finish to the soft velvet toque which rested so gracefully upon her well-shaped head. A few tender kisses upon the blushing face turned up to meet his caress, and Aubrey said, with his arms still encircling Gertrude's slim figure, My darling, I cannot tell you how I grieve to think this day should be shadowed for you by your father's displeasure and absence from our wedding. Are you afraid to begin life with me, thus clouded and chilled ?" No, Aubrey," said Gertrude, looking up frankly into his face. I cannot say I do not grieve over my poor father's injustice to us both, because I do ; but I am yours so fully in heart that I feel difficulties and trials can only make us more completely one ; and, with God's blessing, what have we to fear ? " I do thank you for so willingly falling into my little plan of calling to see my mother to-day '*NO answer" 169 before we start for our wedding tour," said Aubrey a moment or two later. Besides the thought of giving her pleasure, I have the secret hope that she may have one of those clearer moments (which she has had now and again lately, when the mind seems for a brief interval to regain its lost balance) and understand that you, whom she persists in talking to Sarah about as ' the pretty lady,' is her boy Aubrey s wife. If only she could once recognise this fact, it would make everything so much happier ! " ''If she does not understand to-day, she might later," said Gertrude, eager to leave Aubrey all his bright hopes in the matter, yet with a mental reservation for any possible disappointment. Then she added shyly, blushing rosy red, ''I do not forget I am privileged from to-day to take your poor invalid under my charge as a daughter would do a mother. It will be a real joy to me to bear your burden with you." There was no time for more. With a gentle knock at the door, Mrs. Brownlow at this moment came into the room, the two little bridesmaids following, and within a few minutes, Aubrey and his best man " had repaired to the church. M CHAPTER XVI THE FIRST caller" AFTER THE WEDDING The 5.30 p.m. express from the North had just gone. The few passengers who had arrived by- it had left the platform with their luggage, as at least ten minutes had elapsed between arrival and departure. Only one remained, but she could not be reckoned amongst the passengers ; she had her special right to be recognised as one of the railway staff, if daily presence at the station for the last seven or eight years and attention to all trains coming in upon that plat- form could constitute her such. Aubrey's mother looked older than when we saw her last. Her sweet faded face had lines about the mouth and eyes which were sugges- tive of added years, and her movements were slower ; she was growing weary of the daily tramp to meet the train by which the expected son never arrived. Harold has missed his train," she was saying to herself, ''but he will come to-morrow!" when suddenly she paused and stared hard at a gentleman who at that moment came towards her on the platform down which she was walking. 170. THE FIRST "caller" AFTER THE WEDDING 171 He was a well-built young man of about five- and-twenty, tall and dark. His face wore an anxious, almost fretful expression. He was walking very slowly, as if in deep thought, his €yes on the ground. He appeared not to notice the old lady at first, who was eyeing him with rapt, almost painful attention. When he did, it was to evince annoyance at being so closely scrutinised, and to turn round sharply and walk back the way he had come. A porter chanced to pass at the moment. To him Mrs. Rice went up quickly, saying excitedly, Yes, it's the same, and he had no right there ; tell him so. He is not to come, I say, and write at my son's table." The porter was gazing at the speaker with an amused but not unkind expression. For once the old lady had varied her conversation. Apparently a new thought had taken possession of her mind. Almost as he thought this, Aubrey's mother lost the light which had come into her eyes while speaking, and looked dazed and uncomfortable. The next moment and she was babbling her childish prattle : Harold had not come, he had missed his train ; but to-morrow, yes, to-morrow, he would be here." " Who is that strange, little woman? " asked the gentleman who had attracted so much of her attention as she passed him muttering to herself He addressed the porter. 172 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ''A Mrs. Rice; comes here every day. Got a bit brain-turned over a son's death some years ago ; meets all the trains — " But the man to ask the question had passed on, either not interested enough to hear the answer through, or suddenly thinking of some- thing which demanded his whole attention. Well, I'm blue if I'll go out of my way to oblige ye again," said the porter, looking angrily after his retreating figure. Easy enough to tell you're no gentleman. Your folks couldn't afford to pay for manners where you went to school, so you're just forced to shift through life without none ; more's the pity, for, take you on the whole, you're not a bad- looking chap." And upon this the porter went on to do some lamp-cleaning, for which purpose he had originally made his way to the special platform. Meanwhile, Aubrey Rice's mother took her way homewards. The autumnal evening was a little chilly and she drew her shawl round her as she walked slowly down the road which led from the station to her house. "It's a pity he missed his train," she was saying to herself. Harold's a nice boy, and very fond of young Lord Horrick." As she reached her litde home, Aubrey, who had been watching for her at the window (he had purposely not sought her at the station, fearing THE FIRST CALLER " AFTER THE WEDDING I 73 the risk of a scene when bringing Gertrude to her notice), came out before she had made any attempt to open the door. " Come in, my sweet mother, and welcome my wife to her new home," he said, watching with anxiety the effect of his words upon the dulled and enfeebled brain. The word *'wife" had made some impression. Mrs. Rice looked up as if startled. Eh ? " she said, putting her head on one side as if in an attitude of listening. This effort to question was a hopeful sign. It was only quite recently that she had shown interest in anything which might be said to her. Come and see my wife," Aubrey replied, taking the old lady by both hands and gently helping her into the house. Wife ! wife ! " she repeated softly to herself, as if the word held a memory, and the memory was struggling for a place in the poor tired brain. Then Gertrude appeared, blushing and smil- ing, and straightway greeted her mother-in-law with a kiss. And Mrs. Rice had looked her up and down, and now, with hands released from Aubrey's hold, had gently stroked her clothing. Then her dulled eyes had brightened, a look of something akin to intelligence had swept over the faded face, and her lips had framed the two emphatic words, " Aubrey s wife ! " 174 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY And then the old lady took Gertrude by the hand and led her into the little sitting-room and sought to remove her hat, the best welcome she could possibly have given to her new daughter. Sarah was called and tea brought in, and Gertrude was placed by her husband in the chair by the teacups, the seat so long vacated by his mother ; and Mrs. Rice submitted herself to be put by her son's side at the other end of the table. But beyond this Aubrey could not win his mother. She quickly subsided into her self-absorbed mood and talked of her boy who had missed his train, and of "young Lord Horrick/' his friend. But Aubrey felt there was much cause for thankfulness, if only to see Gertrude presiding at the tea-tray and his mother raising no objec- tion. He chatted cheerfully during the meal» in his heart a great joy. Gertrude was his own property and possession. Late in the evening, when he had seen his mother to her room, they would return to town to be ready to take an early train in the morning to the Isle of Wight. It was Aubrey s intention, his wife urging the idea upon him, to shorten their originally planned absence from home, so that some portion of the short holiday might be devoted to the house and the mother. It will give me time to learn how I can be THE FIRST ''caller" AFTER THE WEDDING 1 75 of use to her before you are really away all day at business," Gertrude had pleaded. " I do want to be helpful to her, but my very anxiety might lead to my overdoing it without you somewhere about, Aubrey ! " They had finished tea, and were just rising from the table when there came a ring at the bell. " Your first caller, Gertrude," Aubrey said, with a laugh. Shall we say, * not at home ' ? I think we might be forgiven on this occasion ; don't you ? " Before there was time for any reply, their attention was called to Sarah, who was in angry remonstrance at the door with the supposed visitor or visitors. Aubrey left the sitting- room quickly, closing the door behind him. Sarah turned upon him a very flushed and indignant face. " This police officer says he has come on business, sir," she said, hotly, and I told him you couldn't be seen. This was your wedding day, and you had only looked in to see your dear mamma was all right ; and you were going off by train, and I refused to tell you, sir, and this rude fellow is insisting." *'Come this way, please," said Aubrey, and he opened the door of the small drawing-room, and bowed in one of the two police officers ; the second waited outside the door, saying simply, 176 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ''After you, sir, please." And Aubrey passed into the room, never dreaming that there was something beyond politeness in the action of the man who followed him. It was the last to enter who was the chief spokesman upon what proved to Aubrey a startlingly painful interview. It is my duty to arrest you, Mr. Aubrey Rice," said the one referred to, ''on a charge of forgery," and he forthwith produced the warrant and read it to the amazed master of the house with cruel punctiliousness, adding, "and the quieter you go the better, sir. There is a cab waiting for you a little further down the street." "It is utterly impossible! There is a mistake somewhere ! " gasped Aubrey. " You cannot mean you are actually taking me away — in charge ? " " I fear there is no other course open to us, sir," said the Inspector not unsympathetically. The terror-struck face of his prisoner as he grasped the state of affairs must have moved even the hardest heart. " Well, let me just go and account for my departure to my wife and poor invalid mother," Aubrey said, trying to speak carelessly, but his voice seemed hollow and weak. " You can go where you like, sir, under my escort," said the Inspector, taking some certain THE FIRST " CALLER " AFTER THE WEDDING 1 77 Steel implements from his pocket and proceed- ing to adjust them to Aubrey's wrists with the dexterity of long practice. Like one in a dream he submitted to the ignominy. Then he asked the Inspector to call the servant, who would doubtless be waiting outside the door. Sarah came in trembling and agitated, her eyes red with weeping. Some- thing one of the officers had let fall in insisting upon seeing her master had more than sug- gested trouble ; there were words to the effect that he would have to ''postpone his wedding festivities for a bit." I want you to call my wife out of the room, Sarah," Aubrey said, and now he spoke with calm collectedness, and his voice sounded less strained than before, ''and tell her as quietly as you can that there is some dreadful mistake in this business." He glanced down pathetically at his handcuffs and his lip trembled. How could even the strongest man pass through this humiliating experience with feelings unmoved ? *' When you have explained this to her she had better, if she does not mind, come in here for a moment. I suppose there will be no objection to that, Inspector?" " Certainly not, sir ; make what plans you like. So long as I am here you can take your own time." Sarah was by this time weeping bitterly. 178 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY She had uttered a cry of anguish as Aubreys unconsciously drew her attention to his hand- cuffs, subsiding on to the nearest chair and bursting into tears. Oh, my poor master ! What can it all mean ? " she wailed, and Aubrey said somewhat sternly, "It is only an unfortunate mistake, Sarah ; it will be cleared up in no time. Don't make such a fuss about it, as if I had actually been doing something wrong. You must take care of my wife and mother while I am away ; it can only be for a day or two I hope, at the longest." He glanced at the Inspector as he spoke, but that good man suddenly looked away as if not wishing to be questioned toa closely. Meanwhile the door of the room in which they stood, which had only been drawn to when Sarah entered, was pushed open and Gertrude made her appearance. Coming out in search of Sarah (Mrs. Rice getting restless and fidgetty) to ask what should be done, and not finding her in the kitchen, she was on her way upstairs when she heard her cry of anguish. The next moment and she had entered the drawing-room, thinking Sarah was in trouble and needing her help. It is impossible to describe the expression which came into Gertrude's face when she saw her husband standing between the constables,. THE FIRST caller" AFTER THE WEDDING 1 79 handcuffed. It was one of surprise and indigna- tion, and into this there seemed to gather the tenderest pity for him, her noble Aubrey. Gertrude," said her husband, hesitating to call her by a more endearing term before others, **by some unfortunate mistake, yet to be explained, I am taken up on the charge of forging cheques. The Firm have been enquir- ing into the matter for the last few days. The senior partner had hinted to me his great anxiety. Now they have obtained a warrant out against me ! I can only think a few hours and I shall be sent back home again with an apology for the blunder ; but meanwhile — meanwhile, Gertrude, take care of my poor mother, who will, of course, know nothing of this ; and of yourself" (the last words were added in lowered tones). And now, Inspector, I am ready ! " Gertrude darted a wistful look of love and pity straight into her husband's eyes, the voiceless message from an anguished soul ; but she never lost the control of her feelings. Unconsciously for one brief moment, quite forgetful of the eyes which watched her, she pressed her cheek to his shoulder as she said firmly, but in lower tones, "You may depend upon me for — for everyt,hing, Aubrey." ' " God bless you ! " her husband whispered, but evidently could not trust himself to say l8o THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY more. Then Sarah, with a wail, throwing her apron over her head, ran out into the kitchen, while Gertrude walked beside her husband to the door, and smiled upon him as he turned at the gate to look at her. The cab had come up, a four-wheeler, and Aubrey got in first, the two men following. In a moment it had driven away. And Gertrude closed the door noiselessly and re-entered the drawing-room, where she sank upon her knees by the couch, stifling a low, anguished cry as she buried her face in a soft downy cushion. For ten minutes she re- mained thus, then rose to her feet and went into the sitting-room, to find the aged mother fast asleep in her arm-chair. Leaving her there she passed on into the kitchen. Sarah was in a rocking-chair, swaying herself backwards and forwards with an oft-repeated Oh dear ! oh dear ! oh dear ! " Hush, control yourself, Sarah," Gertrude said earnestly. *'We must not let Mrs. Rice know anything about this trouble. It will be all made right to-morrow. I see quite well what has happened ; some evil-disposed person has been plotting against Mr. Rice. But he will be quite able to explain when the time comes." "But, oh dear! oh dear!" began Sarah again, bursting into a fresh flow of tears, "I'll never get over it, never. You don't love the THE FIRST ''caller" AFTER THE WEDDING l8l young master as I do, or you would never take it so quietly. I nursed him when he was a baby, and I have watched him all my life, and there never was a nicer or more upright lad. He couldn't tell a lie if he tried ; nor could he do an underhand or deceitful trick — no, not if saving his life depended upon it. I tell you, young lady, it's an awful calamity, coming and fetching him off in this style. If you had seen him grow up, first a wee babe, and then a little fellow in knickers, and then a fine young man who always spoke civil to everybody, you would feel the disgrace as I do." " Perhaps I am trying no^ to let you know all I feel," said Gertrude, and she spoke with gentle dignity; ''but a wife's love must be something different from everything else, be- cause you see it has such a lot of hope in it. Now, I hope when to-morrow comes to see my dear husband back again, explaining to us the mystery of all this happening, and if I had to say to him then ' I never left off crying after you went until you came back, and I had to neglect your mother to find time to indulge my grief,' don't you think it would be a pity, now ? " "Neglect the poor missis? Never! Mrs. Rice, junior, as I suppose you'll have to be called, miss." And as if her own remark had ushered in a new thought, Sarah suddenly 1 82 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY sprang up, and, wiping away her tears and straightening her cap and apron, she passed through the kitchen door into the sitting-room, and closed the door behind her. And Gertrude waited to see what would happen next. She was feeling sick and giddy with the shock, but she schooled herself to silent endurance. The thing was too pre- posterous to be made into a trouble. Aubrey commit a forgery ? For what motive ? Aubrey was not poor ; he had no expensive tastes ; no debts — he hated debt, he had often told her ; of course, something had happened to account for the blunder, but it would be explained away on the morrow. Aubrey would be taken into court, and the magistrate would only need to look at him to see he was innocent of whatever charge they made. Then he would give just the explanation wanted to trace the real culprit, and get for himself overwhelming apologies. Later, when Sarah had put her mistress to bed, she returned to the kitchen to find Mrs. Aubrey Rice with very pale cheeks and red eyes. The immediate need for self-control had passed, and Gertrude had been indulging in the luxury of a good cry. The contrast between the young lady left in the kitchen half an hour ago and the one found there upon Sarah's return was quite enough to THE FIRST CALLER " AFTER THE WEDDING 1 83 appeal from that good woman's censure to pity. Forgetting everything but the cruelly start- ling way in which the young wife had been robbed of her husband, old Sarah became suddenly very humble. Poor young lady ! " she said, with deep sympathy in her voice, and Gertrude's tears began to flow afresh, " I ask your pardon for my rough words a while ago. It was only an old woman's rubbish. Of course you love my poor young master a deal better nor I, that's why you didn't let him see your grief, while I was an old fool and hollo'd like anything!" And with this for amends, old Sarah felt to have made her peace with her young masters bride. And Gertrude's bitter desolation and loneliness were some degrees less for the old servant's improved demeanour. CHAPTER XVII ''AND IT WAS night" Poor Gertrude Rice was so ill the day follow- ing the events narrated in the last chapter that by noon she had to give in and return to bed. " I shall be all right in a few hours, Sarah," she had said, trying to speak cheerfully. I am usually so very strong, but yesterday was per- haps too much for me." However, by night she became delirious, and Sarah, in great trouble, having no one to confer with, took it upon herself to send for the doctor, who came every few weeks to see Mrs. Rice. ''Well, Sarah, mistress ill again?" said Dr. Seymour, as he came obedient to her summons. "Well, yes, sir, it is my mistress, only it happens to be vsiy young one. I've Mr. Aubrey's wife staying here while he is away from home on important business for a couple of days or so, and she seems so queer in her head this evening I can't make anything of her." " Indeed!" said the doctor, with that habitual reticence which characterises the medical pro- fession on its way from the house door to the sick room. "Well, take me to her," he added, 184 *' AND IT WAS NIGHT " and he mounted the staircase, waiting on the landing for Sarah, who had to take her time in following. That young lady," he said, ten minutes later as he left the sick room with the old servant, is suffering from a severe nervous shock. She is seriously ill, and her husband should be communicated with. If you will give me his address I will write to him ! " Sarah pressed her lips tightly together, mentally vowing that no power on earth should draw her secret from her. The old lady," she argued to herself, knew nothing, so the doctor could gather nothing from /^er, and as * Mrs. Rice, junior,' had not spoken a word, no informa- tion of any kind had come up to the present to Dr. Seymour's knowledge, and s/^e was not going to be the first to give it ! " He was to have gone to the Isle of Wight to-day, but I think when he left the house last night he had changed his plans," Sarah observed, after a visible pause. **At what time did he leave?" said the doctor, thinking this might give some clue to the distance he was likely to be travelling that night. I think it was getting on for nine when the cab went from the door," said old Sarah, and she turned very red and seemed agitated. Convinced that there was something more to N 1 86 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY tell him if he could only get Sarah to trust him with her confidence, the doctor lingered for a few moments longer than he would have done, but the old servant was most obdurate, and he gave it up at last, never doubting that her silence was in some way associated with her loyalty to her master, and therefore suggesting that the withheld information was not alto- gether to his credit. His newspaper next morning put him in possession of more direct information than Sarah could have given, had she willed to do so. Under the heading, Painful Forgery Case," he read a full account of Aubrey Rice s supposed criminal action, the evidence against him being painfully conclusive. He was committed for trial — bail not being allowed. The newspaper, with a touch of the melodramatic, alluded to the prisoner having been taken up on his wedding day, and ventured the somewhat ill- timed remark that ''few could boast on such auspicious occasions, amongst other useful and ornamental gifts, being presented with a warrant of arrest." Dr. Seymour did not make the slightest allusion to the information he had gathered from his morning paper when visiting his patient later in the day. "As it is likely to be a somewhat serious illness, I am going to send a trained nurse in **AND IT WAS night" 187 to Mrs. Aubrey Rice," he said, on taking his departure. **You will arrange, please, that she has twelve hours off duty for every twelve hours on, comfortable meals, and the chance to get out daily. Talk your plans over with her, and she will I am sure do her best to meet you. It will be necessary for you to be within reach of the patient when nurse is not in the house." Then with a quiet Good day," the doctor had departed, wondering why it was so fre- quently deplored by those studying the question '*that servants of the old class, loyal to the family interests and quite capable of keeping a secret, were nowadays nowhere to be found " ? It was three weeks before Gertrude started to make any satisfactory progress in her illness, six before she was sufficiently convalescent to spare her nurse, by which time Aubrey Rice had pleaded ''Not guilty" to the charge of forgery preferred against him by the firm of Catchpool Brothers; but a special jury had de- cided otherwise, and a judge whose reputation was that of severity in dealing with criminals of the cultured classes had passed upon him a sentence which sent a shudder through the court, which for the most part was in sympathy with the aristocratic prisolier at the bar — Seven years' penal servitude." It would be impossible to give all the data of circumstances and events upon which the charge 1 88 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY was built up without going into details con- cerning the business plans and operations of Catchpool Brothers which would be wearisome to follow and painful to analyse, inasmuch as seen from the point of view pressed by the counsel for the prosecution, they presented cruel finger-signs all moving in one direction, and that, the bringing home to Aubrey Rice the guilt of which he was accused. Mr. Everet- Arnold, the senior partner of the firm had given his evidence with ** grave reluctance, seeing the prisoner was the nominee of the late junior partner (a great personal friend of his own) for a position on the firm staff, after three years' training in a business altogether new to him ; but, to be honest, from the first he had had his doubts as to the genuine straightforward dealing of the prisoner, and upon his attention being directed to certain little matters connected with his total inaptitude for business, he had lost considerable confidence in him and quite naturally kept his eyes open " — and so forth. Mr. Joseph Buncer, buyer in the employment of the firm, had been called to prove the prisoner's strange conduct on a certain occasion in reference to a lost latch-key. It was evidently the prisoners intention to gather material^ should it be required for use on a future occa- sion, whereby to prove that on a certain date he AND IT WAS NIGHT " was actually at his own home, unable to enter in the ordinary way because of the absence from his pocket of a latch-key, whereas the pro- babilities, as suggested by the case before them, were that he was miles away (it being early closing day) getting the cheque cashed at the Firm's West-end bankers, just before their closing time." A cashier from the said bankers next gave evidence to the effect that Catchpool Brothers were in the habit of issuing cheques for more or less large sums, made payable to the Firm's order, it being well known that this was the Firm's method of paying salaries, the initial *'S" below the Firm's signature indicating for what purpose the cheque had been drawn. Two cheques of this description had been placed to the Firm's debit account between September the 22nd and the 30th. In the rush of work at the counter it was impossible for the cashier to say by whom these cheques had been presented. • Nor would he swear that in each case it was the same individual, but as far as his memory would serve him it was, if not the prisoner himself, some one very much like him. He perfectly well remembered that on each occasion these cheques were presented just before closing time, a fact which called forth no special atten- tion, it being the usual custom to come at that hour. I go THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Cross-examined : No, it had not struck him in regard to the first cheque presented that it was the Firm's early closing day." Further cross-examined : " No, the sum of these *S' initialed cheques was never a uniform one ; it varied with the number of cheques issued from month to month." As one in a dream Aubrey had listened to his defamers, almost losing now and again all trace of his own identity. Again and again he was reminded of the coloured glass through which, as a school-boy, he had made everything appear to the sight of one hue. The witnesses on the side of the prosecution believed him guilty of the crime of which he was accused, and all the little nothings pertaining to his life and conduct were coloured with a distinctive criminal tint. When Stanley Pritchard entered the witness- box Aubrey Rice knew instinctively that whatever had gone before would be mild as compared with what had now to come in the evidence against him. Stanley had started by suggesting it was impossible in the interests of the Firm to remain silent, otherwise nothing in the world would have led him to give evidence against a man who had always been upon most friendly terms with him. Then had come with suitable hesitation, as it meant a personal confession, a description of **AND IT WAS night" I9I his visit to Mr. Rice last August bank holiday. ''He had gone to ask the loan of ten pounds, being in a little need himself, and always regarding Mr. Rice as a young man of mone- tary standing. He had found him alone in the house with an invalid mother, who was confined to her bed. He had been asked up to the room which the prisoner called his' *den,' where he had evidently been busy writing at the moment of his arrival, for on returning to the room he had hastily closed a writing case upon the table against which his chair had stood. ''In asking for the loan the prisoner had explained he was not well off, and was really in sore need of money himself, as he was anxious to get married the following year. But upon pressure the loan was granted, and an I O U was written for it. And it was while writing this that Mr. Rice — he should say the prisoner — had gone hurriedly into his mother's room, summoned thither by a knock on the wall. " During his temporary absence, the I O U made out, it was only natural to glance at the very pretty writing case— the one produced in court — which at the moment greatly took his (the witness') fancy. The watered silk which lined the wooden case he much admired, and thought it a pity that in closing the case over 192 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY an open letter some traces of ink had been left upon this silk. It was when looking at these marks, with regret that anything so chaste should be impaired, that he noticed the forma- tion of the strokes (to be seen to-day), and, examining more closely, distinctly traced the broken and imperfect letters of the Firm's cheque signature. *' The discovery appalled him. He closed the case as if he had himself been a culprit, and was standing at the window when the prisoner returned. The secret overburdened him ; he kept it to himself, regretting now that he did not at the first apprise the senior partner of his discovery, and so save the mischief which followed, for quite six weeks had elapsed before the passing of the first cheque. The senior partner, when aware of what had taken place, in examining his pass-book made up to quarter- day, had held interviews in his private room with all in any important position in the business. It was not until then that, no longer able to keep his secret, he asked to see Mr. Everet- Arnold, and disclosed the facts which led to search being made in the book now before the court for the marks referred to, and ultimately to the apprehending of the prisoner." This closed the evidence for the prosecution. For the defence Aubrey had not lacked friends to speak for him. The insurance "AND IT WAS night" office in which he had worked for so many- years sent a representative to speak in the highest praise of his steadiness and scrupulous honesty while employed in their Firm. Lord Horrick had gone into the witness-box to testify to his uprightness in private life, and had hinted that his marriage with the daughter of a highly connected country rector was in itself a testi- monial. (Unfortunately the whisper went round the court that the prisoner had long ago been forbidden the house of his father-in-law, and the marriage had taken place from the house of a Brixton clergyman, information which did not tend to strengthen the prisoner's case, but rather the contrary.) Others also came forward, each one in his way anxious to say something kind of the prisoner, but all in some way explaining, either in the direct evidence or by cross- examination, that they had not seen much of the prisoner since he entered the Firm of Catch- pool Brothers. The judge's summing up was fair, considering his reputation for severity, but it laid great emphasis upon the fact rhat it was painfully evident that the prisoner's character had de- teriorated somewhat since entering the Firm of Catchpool Brothers ; the chief partner, to whose advantage it would have been to have cultivated more closely the future partner, acknowledged that time lessened rather than 194 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY increased his confidence in the young man. It was for the jury to decide, lacking any evidence of appreciable worth as to the actual use made of the money come by in this assumably dishonourable way, whether there was still sufficient reason to acquit the prisoner on the charge of forgery? Unfortunately for the prisoner, experts in handwriting had all agreed that the letters, repeated as if in the effort to effect a perfection only made possible by prac- tice, and the prisoner s own handwriting, and the signature of the cheques had a similarity which could not be explained away, etc. The jury retired for thirty-five minutes, and on their return, amid breathless silence, the foreman said, *' We find the prisoner guilty of forgery, although failing to accept any con- clusion as to the motive which led to it." Then the sentence had been pronounced, and Aubrey was removed from the position he had occupied for three consecutive days as a criminal pro tern, to his seven years of darkness and shame in a felon's cell. And Gertrude had only the newspapers from which to glean details of this terrible trial, When sufficiently restored to be told what had taken place, Dr. Seymour himself broke the news to her. With great consideration for his patient's happiness, he had obtained an interview with the convicted man on his wife's behalf ; had explained the nature " AND IT WAS NIGHT " of her illness, and her progress towards recovery, assuring Aubrey Rice that he might be perfectly rested in knowing his wife intended to bear her sorrow bravely, and devote herself to his mother. Her intention was, so soon as strong enough, to seek a morning engagement as governess in the neighbourhood, thus to be earning something while free to devote a considerable portion of each day to Mrs. Rice. From Aubrey the doctor had brought a message of tender devotion. "It was for her he grieved most. The cruelty of the charge, the pain of those three days in court, the realisa- tion that he had been deprived of his liberty and had seven years of prison life to look forward to, were nothing compared with his grief for the sorrow brought upon herself. The more he thought about it all, the more sure he was there had been a foul conspiracy against him, and that some day it would be cleared up ; he went to prison to suffer the penalty of another's wrongdoing. It was not for him to say he knew who that other was. Of what avail would it be? A^i English judge and jury had found him guilty of a crime he had never committed. Before his supposed guilt could be cleared away another must confess to the crime. Henceforth his hope rested in another man's conscience being awakened." Gertrude wept softly as the doctor recounted 196 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY the history of his interview with her husband — she was still physically weak — then, smiling through her tears, she had said, If I am not brave after hearing this, I shall not be doing my duty as his wife." And Dr. Seymour regretted at that moment that his bachelor home could not extend its hospitality to lady patients. He wished — perhaps not for the first time in his life — that he had a wife whose presence in the house, besides securing to him innumerable benefits and advantages, would help him to carry out many a plan which to-day must be labelled ''lawful, but not expedient." It was Dr. Seymour who eventually secured Gertrude a position as lady companion, at an excellent salary. Her hours were from ten to six, Sundays excepted, and her duties were exceedingly light. *' Better than a nursery governess' place," he had said, warmly. "You will have a certain amount of comfort and care here which would have been impossible with the charge of children." But," Gertrude had replied, brightly, re- membering her dear little pupils at Brixton, I am happiest with children ; and some day I should like to get back to the schoolroom again." "If that is really your desire," said Dr. Sey- " AND IT WAS NIGHT " 197 mour, we will be on the look-out for a suitable post, and meanwhile I should advise you to write to Mrs. Brownlow for a testimonial, which you can have in readiness." " If it were not for my responsibilities here in looking after my husband's mother, I know what I would love to do." What is that ? " enquired Dr. Seymour. I like to feel you can still be enthusiastic." I would go and live within reach of Aubrey's prison ; it would be such a comfor to live near him and call myself Mrs., or, better still, Miss Huntly. My maiden name was Gertrude Huntly Hastings : it would only be like claiming to be known by my old name and not by my new." Well, it might happen some day, unless the guilty man makes short work of clearing his conscience and puts the law, which condemned your poor husband, in motion again to release him from prison." Oh, if only he would ! " said Gertrude, tear- fully. And the doctor took his leave, sure that whatever the future held in store by way of suffering to Aubrey Rice and his wife, the day would yet dawn in which the young husband s innocence would be declared. And when three months later Dr. Seymour died while visiting a patient, of heart disease. 198 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Gertrude mourned his loss the more deeply because he never talked of the future without flooding- it with the light of hope. Meanwhile she had devoted herself to Aubrey's mother. With gentle and persistent effort she sought to be friends with the poor old lady so strangely absorbed in her own trouble. During all those long weeks of illness Mrs. Rice had never once entered Gertrude s room, although daily Sarah had tried to explain that Mr. Aubrey's wife was ill." But when Gertrude was able to get down- stairs, and, feeling very weakly, would rest in a high back chair, the old lady evinced sudden interest. She would come and sit beside her and stroke her cheeks and hands, and say softly, '* Poor wife," in most pathetic tones, often calling down the too-ready-to-flow tears of her daughter-in-law. When Gertrude at length took the situation as companion, old Mrs. Rice would watch for her home-coming from the little parlour window and run to the door to meet her. She had, it was soon evident, found a new interest in life, an interest which even led her to forget the trains which came and went as of yore, and devote herself to Gertrude. One day when Gertrude came home from her pupils she missed the familiar face at the window, and concluded the old lady had once "and it was night" 199 more returned to the meeting of Harold s train. But it was not so. She found her" crying softly in Aubrey's room. "Aubrey meets the trains now," she said, as Gertrude came up to her and enquired, cheer- fully, Dear Mrs. Rice, what may I do for you?" Be good to Aubrey and Harold when they come in," she said, *'and do thou tell them their poor old mother got so tired of waiting for the trains — so tired ; tell Aubrey his poor old mother was so glad to rest because /ie went to meet the trains." Over and over again the same thing ; still, pathetically sad as it was to hear, there was comfort in the thought that the gentle old lady had so well accounted for Aubrey's absence. All this time Gertrude slept in Aubrey's room and bed, to be at hand should she be wanted. And one night she distinctly heard the words, Aubrey, Aubrey! be sure to meet thy brother till he comes, and bring him home to me," and hastily passing into her mother-in- law's room she found her v soundly sleeping, a smile upon her lips. Twice in the next half- hour she moved, but each time smiling as if in happy dreamland. Then of a sudden — so sudden as to make Gertrude's heart beat — she started up in bed and, extending her arms upwards, exclaimed in a tone of triumph, 200 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Harold s come ! Tell Aubrey, at last I see him. Oh, how fair he looks ! how sweet he smiles ! He is not an hour older. My boy, my precious boy, thou wast worth the waiting for. Oh, God be thanked for giving a poor lone widow the desires of her heart ! " And, so saying, she sank back into her pillows and once more slept. In vain Gertrude tried later to rouse her ; for food she had no appetite, for a return to the weary life of daily longing, no will. She craved but to be left alone to sleep. . . And so the end came, four months and a few days only after Aubrey's leaving home. . . . And, as if to add to the desolateness of her sad life, Gertrude, a few days before any change had come to Mrs. Rice's health, knew that she had gazed upon the kind face of Aunt Matilda for the last time. The Squire had written briefly to announce the fact — a sudden seizure while, with the assembled household, they were in the midst of family prayers, and his faithful and devoted wife had breathed her last. Amidst all this overwhelming strain, Gertrude determined to give up the little house which could never be a home to her without Aubrey. Once free from household cares and she could take a residential position as governess, and further, she could choose the neighbourhood in which to live. What was to hinder her settling " AND IT WAS NIGHT " 20I down somewhere within sight and reach of Aubrey's prison ? Mrs. Brownlow had sent her an excellent testimonial. In due course all arrangements were made. The furniture was scarcely of a kind to store. If it were another seven years (less only the few months which had already passed) before Aubrey would be free to enjoy a home of his own again, the things, already in some cases moth-eaten, would be practically worthless. Hence Gertrude had determined to get rid of them. To old Sarah's charge (who, now free to plan her own life, had accepted an invitation to live with a widowed sister) she had consigned the care of two trunks, filled with small treasures which had been scattered about the house, in themselves valueless, but holding, doubtless, tender home memories which her husband might wish to preserve. It is only due to say here that Sarah had herself urged a sale, saying many times her young master had said, when speaking of his marriage as some way ahead, that before he made his house as he would wish it to be for his bride he would entirely refurnish, and Gertrude's plans had been formed accordingly, her own judgment seeing no wisdom in paying for storage, which was from all points unde- sirable. The sale had been a great disappointment to o 202 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Gertrude. (When are sales other than disap- pointing?) Instead of having money to put away for Aubrey s use, some day, in the Post- office savings bank, to which she meant to add by her own earnings, she found that, after giving Sarah a gift of a few pounds, and paying a quarter's rent in advance in lieu of notice, and settling up the many little incidental expenditures which her own illness had in- volved, after laying out all her savings of the past three years, she had only enough left to give her the necessary equipment for the post of nursery governess which she had succeeded in obtaining on a month's probation in a garrison town in the neighbourhood of which was a convict prison. As she had planned to do in Dr. Seymour's lifetime, she had taken the engagement under the name of "Miss Huntly." Her charges were the two little sons of a solicitor (a widower), whose maiden sister lived with him, and who was, for more reasons than one, very careful whom she engaged for the position. Mrs. Brownlow's testimonial was just the kind she approved, hence " Miss Huntly 's " acceptance without any further enquiry. CHAPTER XVIII THE SQUIRE MAKES HIS WILL The senior partner of the firm of Grant & Son was seated in his country office busy with correspondence which would be handed over to his clerks to deal with, so as to get through with the signing not later than twelve-thirty, in time for him to catch the ten-to-one express to town. The order had been given that no stray client would be interviewed that day. The only appointment " had come and gone, and Mr. Grant had quite as much as he could accom- plish before he must leave for London, his son Hugh being too unwell to go to town that day. What is it, Drake ? " he asked his confiden- tial clerk as he entered the room with a look of apology upon his face. He had no papers in his hand, and his manner, hesitating to a degree, was of one who was conscious of acting contrary to his chiefs wishes. It's Mr. Butler- Edgcombe, sir. I told him you were specially engaged, and as he hadn't made an appointment — " What does he need to worry me about to- 203 204 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY day?" said the lawyer, evidently annoyed. I'm getting on as fast as I can with his work. Still, it would not do to offend him ; bring him up and wire to town ' Hold one-thirty appointment — coming next train.' " The man who greeted the Squire with a suave smile and brow without a ruffle was evidently well practised in the art of controlling his feelings. ''How do, Squire ? Glad to see you ; a little pressed for time, but at your service," was the cordial greeting Mr. Butler- Edgcombe received. " I had no time to make an appointment/' said the Squire by way of apology, ''so pray excuse my coming along without one. I find Lord Walters means to fight me over this property question. He is good enough to tell me, in a letter this morning received, that I am an upstart and an adventurer, and that no court of law would acknowledge my claim to my late wife's estates ; he says further he has taken advice on the matter, and unless I will accept his terms of having five hundred a year settled on me for my life, and withdrawing all claim to anything beyond, he will see what a British judge and jury will say to it — with threats that I need not repeat. No, I have purposely left the letter at home. It is too personal, too vulgar in its coarse allusions to the ladies, my late wife and sister-in-law, to THE SQUIRE MAKES HIS WILL 205 make me desire that it should be seen even by my lawyer. I came to you to ask you to take the matter up and see it through for me." Mr. Grant smiled — a smile which means to a client "judgment deferred." He would com- mit himself to nothing for the present. He had in a previous interview heard enough of the case to be quite sure that it was just one open for litigation, and he further knew that the present Squire, while well-informed and business- like up to a certain point, was strangely deficient in that special quality of ancestral dignity which goes far to vindicate a cause already two-thirds covered by justice. In a word, he was unusually dependent, hence there was more to be made under these circumstances than was at all sug- gested by ordinary ''legal fees." But this was a matter for discreet handling. I feel so particularly helpless," said the Squire. '* I fail to see that Lord Walters can under the circumstances make good any claim. Still, as you told me last time, he had a some- what analogous case to fall back upon to suggest the possibility of the law supporting him, where one taking much the position he does gained his day, you will remember. I see the im- portance of being prompt and definite, so I came to you with a proposition." " Which is ? " said the lawyer, visibly grow- 206 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ing more cordial, but still speaking with an evident effort to be guarded. In the previous interview he had broadly intimated that it was usual in a case of this sort to guarantee a certain sum down, over and above legiti- mate fees, should matters be brought to a successful issue, but the Squire had not appeared to take to the idea. " I propose," said the Squire, clearing his throat and speaking rapidly, that on the definite understanding that you secure to me the property intact I will make you my heir, less capital equal to ^500 per annum, which I would leave to relatives needing my help. I propose settling this ;^500 upon them forthwith, hence they would simply come into full posses- sion at my death of the capital to-day invested on their behalf, while there would be a mental reservation in the matter of certain legacies to philanthropic and religious objects of interest, say to the extent of ^20,000. Beyond this everything would be yours. You should be — I am right I think in the term ? — my residuary legatee." ''Ton my word. Squire," said the lawyer, as if suddenly roused to see the value of the offer made, I think you are most generous, most considerate ! I shall be delighted to accept your terms with one proviso, namely, that if the successful issue of the pending trial THE SQUIRE MAKES HIS WILL 207 brings this agreement into force, and if I die before you do, you will make my son your heir." " I see no objection," said the Squire, thoughtfully. " Draw up an agreement at this office, and I will hand the whole business over to you and go abroad for a few months ; it won't hurt me to travel, and I shall get out of the strain of it all. I am a man for peace and quiet, sir; I hate turmoil of any kind ! " and the Squire got up from his seat and walked to the window. He was more moved about the question than he cared should be seen by the man he was perforce making his friend. This put quite a new complexion upon the Squire's little business, and Mr Grant was in no hurry to keep the appointment with the client already awaiting him in his town office. He went very fully into detail, and there and then dictated, by the express desire of Mr. Butler- Edgcombe, a rough draft of a new will embodying the Squire's wishes about the disposal of his property after his death. Finally, when this was read over for approval, Mr. Butler- Edgcombe was evidently struck by a thought only at that moment presenting itself to his mind. I think there would be no harm in putting in a third name ; after all, it may only be a matter of form, but the idea commends itself to me. Supposing, in the event of your death and 208 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY your son's before mine, Fd like to name my young friend, Mr. Aubrey Rice, as residuary legatee. He is, I am sure, a worthy young man, in spite of a cruel miscarriage of justice in that forgery trial — of course you read all about it at the time — last autumn ? Bless my life, it was an awful blow to my poor wife ; we had only been to his wedding a few days before it all came out in the Times. His poor young wife was, I daresay you will remember. Miss Gertrude Hastings — badly treated at home because she stuck to the man she loved in spite of his going into a business to which her father objected. Poor girl, she has had a hard time of it, I know; but she never doubts her husband's innocence — she put it pretty plainly in writing to my wife, and telling her all about it — and neither do I ; so just to prove my good feeling, if nothing else, we will have him down in my will. You understand — supposing you and your son to be dead, the property will go to him; and supposing, as I suppose I must in politeness say I hope may be the case, you are living when I die, he shall come into a thousand pounds just as a token of my good- will ? I feel sure you'll not object to this ? " At that moment there was but small likeli- hood of any exception being taken to the Squire's express wishes, so long as the main point was established, this being the lawyer's THE SQUIRE MAKES HIS WILL 20g absolute claim to the property as Mr. Butler- Edgcombe's direct heir. The conditions which secured this privilege did not trouble Mr. Grant. He felt sure, if he bent all his energies upon the case, it could be cleared and judgment given in his client's favour, more especially as during that morn- ing's conversation the Squire had chanced to refer to the fact of the relationship, although obviously obscure, which existed between his own family and that of his late wife. The clause concerning Aubrey Rice did not appear of any special moment to the lawyer. The fact that in connection with this, the Squire's fortune, he was only mentioned as a remote alternative was of certain importance, but not of undue significance. Mr. Grant, senior, was a young man for his years (which were scarcely over fifty), and his son was only three-and-twenty. When at length Mr. Butler- Edgcombe took his departure, the case, which in time became one of historic fame, had been practically handed over to the firm of Messrs. Grant & Son. The will would stand in place of agree- ment. Should the case be lost, the Squire would at once revoke the present testamentary document by making another. The trial took place in due course, lasting twenty-eight days, and it brought to light many 2IO THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY interesting family skeletons from cupboards which had not been opened for years, and which would have remained closed to this day but for the vigilant effort of Messrs. Grant & Son to supply Mr. Butler-Edgcombe's counsel with materials which would reduce the Edg- combe family proper to the level of ordinary everyday humanity. Without devoting time to details which afforded great interest to the newspaper- reading public and great opportunities to the legal profession in a hundred and one ways best known to ''the bench," suffice it to say that Mr. Butler- Edgcombe won his case, and Messrs. Grant & Son congratulated themselves that the part they played in the winning was in no sense paid for by the handsome cheque received at the conclusion of the trial " for services rendered" — a certain document, duly attested, certifying that in the event of Mr. Butler-Edgcombe's death during the lifetime of Mr. Grant he was, with certain limitations, his sole heir and executor, or, failing his being alive at the time, the property would go to his son. The duly-announced intention of the defeated claimants to appeal to a higher court never came to anything, and Mr. Butler- Edgcombe was left to enjoy his property in peace. He had been so much engrossed with his THE SQUIRE MAKES HIS WILL 211 own worries that, although not absenting himself abroad during the trial as originally intended, he had had thought for little else ; hence his intention to seek out Gertrude Rice, and tell her what he had done in putting her husband's name in his will in proof of his full confidence in the young man, had been post- poned from week to week, and neither by visit nor letter had the sorrowing wife been comforted by the good news. But with his own burden of care removed — for the recent trial had been a real trouble to the peaceful nature of the honest -minded Squire — his thoughts went off, not unnaturally, in the direction of others still suffering ; and Gertrude came in for a very special bestowal of sympathy. Poor young lady ; upon my honour, her misfortune puts all my recent worry and annoyance quite in the shade," he said, as he hunted up her last letter — so full of well- expressed sympathy — which had come to him the day after his dear Matildas death, and which he had duly acknowledged. I won't lose another day, but will go down and call upon her and explain everything." But an attack of lumbago brought the Squire to a sudden standstill, and it was quite another fortnight before he was free to carry out his intention. 2 12 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY By this time it was May, six months after Gertrude s unhappy wedding day. As she had written full details of her plans, which she explained would be to remain in charge of Aubrey's invalid mother until the miserable mistake was found out and her husband restored to her, Mr. Butler- Edgcombe anticipated no difficulty in finding her. Neither would there have been had it chanced that his visit had been paid about a month earlier. To-day when he reached Aubrey Rice's old home it was to find a notice-board up — ''This desirable villa residence to let," with the intimation that " For further particu- lars, apply Messrs. Hardy & Bradfield, house agents." CHAPTER XIX NO. ^'75" Miss Huntly was retained after her month's probation as governess to Mr. Marshall's two little sons. Their aunt believed her to be a very suitable ''young person." She had nice ways ; indeed, was a very pleasant-mannered woman, and the children had taken to her immediately. *' She tells us beautiful stories, ever so long and no end jolly," said Albert, the elder boy, when speaking to a caller about his governess, whose name had been brought up by the lady of the house in chatting with her visitors. " Jack says she knows a lot, and I think she does, though she says she did not learn Latin at school and knew precious little Euclid." Like most motherless boys brought up by a maiden aunt, Albert was a little inclined to talk as if much older than his years. Sympathy for his loss and eager desire to make in measure good the deficiency had led to spoiling. '' I am almost afraid I should lack your confidence in placing such an amiable young lady under the same roof as a fine handsome 213 214 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY widower, my dear," another visitor ventured to remark one day when calling upon Miss Marshall. " Oh, there is no fear of anything on that score/' replied the lady, hastily. Miss Huntly has had a sorrowful experience in her life, I feel certain of that. There are times when she is greatly depressed. Sometimes I think she must have been jilted. Once I made sure of it from something she remarked. • But when I asked if she had proved the instability of man, as I have done to my cost" (Miss Marshall paused here and sighed ; every one knew her life-story, a hasty wooing and a bitter forsaking for a lady not fairer but more heavily weighted with golden guineas, so the tale ran) ; when I put this question to her she flushed up and said with an outburst of feeling, ' Oh no ! her fiancd had been true to her, but obstacles had come between them ; perhaps later these would be removed ; any way she would never marry any other man.' " ''So I considered that settled," added Miss Marshall, ''and I congratulated myself that Miss Huntly would not worry me with any secret plans of being the boys' stepmother. If my brother should ever bring himself to the thought of marrying again, he can't do better than have his dear wife's cousin, Sophia Jane ! " This will show how it happened that Ger- NO. 75 215 trude found herself as time went on in Miss Marshall's good graces. No previous governess had been so secure from critical observation and treatment of a kind which would be intended to keep the young governess in her place. Ger- trude was felt to be a safe ''young person," and was allowed to make herself at home as no predecessor since the death of Mrs. Marshall had felt free to do. It was a sultry but sunless morning late in June. Gertrude had taken her young charges for iheir favourite walk, where they could watch the poor convicts at their work. The eyes of love never lost their eager straining in searching for a familiar face ; but in the two long months which had passed since she came to Portbeach not even once had she thought any form in convict garb resembled Aubrey. Perhaps, as a younger man and withal a gentleman, it was thought better to put him to some work in the prison, account-keeping or otherwise ? Poor girl, she was all at sea as to the restrictions of convicts, their mode of life, the duties permitted and those forbidden. She was watching two poor fellows at work to-day, wondering if, after all, it was an utter impossibility to effect an escape, when Jack, the younger of her two charges, came up to her in great excitement. One convict had struck another, and the poor fellow hit lay senseless on the ground. 2l6 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY " Come, Miss Huntly," pleaded the boy, quick, and you will see for yourself how he is hurt. See that horrid warder actually poking him with the butt end of his gun. Oh, it's cruel, cruel ! " and the little lad's tears began to flow. Gertrude followed the excited child nearer to the spot. By this time a small crowd had gathered, and for a moment or two she did not get a view of the unconscious man. It was only when one of the soldierly warders lifted him from the spot where he lay and flung him over the shoulder of another warder, head downwards but face to view, that she could distinctly see his features ; then, with a muffled sob, she sprang forward. What cared she at the moment who saw her ? The crowd which broke in two to allow the man and his burden to pass admitted Gertrude. The blood was streaming down the livid brow of the unconscious man and mingled with his closely-cropped hair as Miss Huntly pressed near, her cheeks on fire, her eyes overflowing with tears. Let me wipe the blood away," she besought the man who followed behind. Indeed, I mean no harm, but, please, it's an awful wound." Don't fret, miss," said the warder addressed, turning towards Gertrude as she walked beside him and he followed the one who bore the NO. 75 " 217 weight of the injured man, he isn't much hurt. He'll be treated kindly enough; he hadn't ought to be put to this rough work. You can see by his hands he's not used to it." Gertrude's tearful eyes precluded her from seeing much of anything, for her gaze was fixed on no other than the face of her husband. Oh, if only his eyes would open, if only consciousness would return and he be put down upon his feet, just for one brief moment to realise that she was near him ! But what could that achieve without words to explain ? Gertrude never thought of it at the moment, but she saw it plainly enough after- wards and found actual comfort in realising that consciousness did noi( come back while she followed ; that Aubrey had not the pain of seeing her at a time when sign or word would be impossible. She turned faint and sick with the awfulness of the discovery made, and paused for a moment, and in that pause lost grbund which she did not attempt to regain later. She leant up against some railings near and put her hand over her eyes. She had seen him. Her keen eyes had taken in at a glance her husband, her Aubrey in convict dress. Well, having seen him once, why not again ? She had a very confused idea of what was to p 2l8 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY follow their mutually seeing and recognising each other. But something would happen if such were the case. Aubrey was innocent, absolutely guiltless. No law was binding upon an innocent man. If it were possible for him to get his freedom, he had the right to do it. None could say he erred in breaking away from fetters which had no right to hold him. These were her thoughts whenever dwelling upon the painful subject of Aubrey's captivity. A dumb ache came into Gertrude's heart, and a cry to the God of justice and mercy to make a way of escape for her cruelly-suffering husband. Albert and Jack returned to her side breath- less with excitement. The poor man had recovered, and had managed to walk with support, and one of the warders called him Seventy-five," so that was his number. And as Gertrude tried to steady her brain and behave as she might have done had that morning's event not concerned the one of all others for whom her heart was hungering, she heard little Jack's voice behind her saying over and over to himself, " Number seventy- five, number seventy-five." And as if to harrow her feelings still more, although in another way it brought her com- fort, little Jack, when saying his prayers at her knee that night, said pathetically, " Please NO ^'75" 219 Lord Jesus bless Number 75, and if he's been wicked, forgive him and make him good. Per- haps he's not really done anything bad, but he's punished all the same, because people thought he has, like the man in Miss Huntly's story ; then please, //^^a;^^ Lord Jesus, send an angel to get him out of prison like you sent one to Peter. Let his wound heal soon, and say good-night to him and comfort him, for Jesus Christ's sake — Amen." After this episode, it was no wonder that the little boys were always on the look-out for Number 75. In vain Gertrude told them they might get the men into trouble if they were seen too near them. It was nothing to their young feet to climb over the rugged heaps which separated the convicts at work from the ordinary passers-by on the road above them. ''We're only boys, Miss Huntly," said Albert, earnestly; "no one will notice us, and if only we could get near enough to say, ' Poor Number 75, we're very sorry for you'; he ought to be glad, don't you think ? " Ah, how glad ! Gertrude thought, but she remained silent and the little boys accepted her silence to mean permission, and their vigilant search never flagged. But in the weeks which followed, although the daily walk when fine, with few exceptions, found Gertrude and her young charges some- 2 20 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY where near to where the convicts worked, no happy chance brought them within reach of Number 75 ; and Httle Jack would regret the fact, and wonder if perhaps **he had died of his wound, or gone mad or something," often giving his governess a troubled heart, and robbing her nights of sleep, because to dwell upon the might he's " meant to wonder if Aubrey would live through those cruel years of punishment for another's crime. Of course, official communication would be sent should what she dreaded happen, but none knew excepting those situated as Gertrude was what the "carking care" may grow to be under circumstances akin to hers. CHAPTER XX SICK-ROOM CONFIDENCES Miss Huntly awoke one morning with a feverish cold. Miss Marshall was in dire con- cern because it chanced the day before that a caller, the mother of ten, had incidentally- mentioned that chicken-pox was very much about, and the school her little girl attended was closed in consequence. Without giving her governess a chance of declining the kind consideration, the mistress of the house sent without delay for the doctor. By the time he arrived Gertrude was feeling too unwell to mind what steps were likely to be taken to secure her isolation from the children. No decision could be arrived at as to the nature of her ailment for a few days so there was nothing but to wait. Meanwhile Miss Marshall started off to a relative living near to Basingstoke with her two nephews, getting her brother to migrate for the present to a private hotel near at hand. A fortnight's change would do her good and the little boys would enjoy a run in the hay fields. 221 222 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY All arrangements were made for Miss Huntly's comfort. Amy, the sewing maid, would bring up her meals and be her exclusive attendant, sleeping in an adjacent room, so that night and day Miss Huntly would have some one near to her. The Doctor said jocosely there was no help for it; after these elaborate preparations Miss Huntly would be clearly neglecting her duty if she did not now chance to develop the much- feared chicken-pox. Sure enough, in due course it turned out to be that unpleasant but seldom dangerous malady. Gertrude had it mildly, and only actually kept her bed for three days. Amy, the maid, was most thoughtful and kind. Indeed, as time went on, Gertrude became quite fond of her. She had hitherto thought of her as a very reserved young woman, whose quiet manners and hushed tones when speaking suggested a crushed spirit. Amy was never heard to laugh ; indeed, she seldom smiled, but she was an excellent servant and had come to Miss Marshall very highly recommended. As a sick nurse, for such she really became to Miss Huntly, Amy was quite a different creature. Her reserve gave way, and she chatted freely of her travels on the Continent with the lady whose sister had recommended her to her present situation, to whom she was evidently very much attached. SICK-ROOM CONFIDENCES 223 " Why did you leave her ? " asked Gertrude, not unnaturally. She died," said Amy, bursting into tears. Well one day, and dead the next. I have never rallied from the shock ; but her sister was most kind to me. We had sent for her — my master was an aged man, an admiral — and she brought me to England and got me this situa- tion. I had a great desire to live in Portbeach, or near to it ; that's why I came." ''Where is your home, Amy?" enquired Gertrude, really interested, although every one knows how ready an invalid is to talk, if only for the sake of passing time, which is so prone to drag in the sick-room. I have no home," was Amy's reply, but her cheeks grew very red, as if something lay behind the statement which she would fain conceal. And Gertrude said, her warm heart moved to sympathy, ''Poor darling!" and Amy, unused to tender words of late, bowed her head and wept. Then, as if on the impulse of some sudden thought, she drew a low seat near to Gertrude's couch and talked long and earnestly, but all the time in hushed tones as if what she had to say could only be spoken thus. Her tale was a sad one. I have no intention of giving it in detail here. There is enough sorrowful reading in this story to make it wise 2 24 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY to keep from it all sadness which does not immediately concern it. Still, the wonderful development of plans as touching Gertrude's and Aubrey's near future belong so absolutely to this chance coincidence, the confidence established in this season of sickness between Miss Huntly, the governess, and Amy, the sewing maid, that links in my story would be lacking did I not tell enough to explain how events followed in natural order rather than came to pass in obscure and irregular happenings. The actual cause of Amy's trouble, which went back at least ten years, was unhappiness at home because of the advent there of a young stepmother. Wilful and wayward, the young girl, who had hitherto followed dress- making as a daily worker at a well-known drapery establishment, would not be won to patience and grateful acceptance of the newly- created relationship which had brought such evident comfort and joy into the life of her devoted father. As an only child Amy had doubtless been spoilt ; and seven years had elapsed between the death of her own mother and the advent into the home of the new wife. So Amy had left her father's roof. At two- and-twenty she had a right to be independent, and so forth, finding in London what she thought to be a suitable opening in a drapery SICK-ROOM CONFIDENCES 225 establishment in Bayswater. Her honest, steady-going father would have preferred her to have ''gone into service," feeling there was safety for the motherless girl if in the home of a mistress who took some interest in her maids (and are there not thousands such ? ), whereas in business " who knew what trials and temptations might not be in store for her ? The very independence craved for was in itself a forerunner of evil possibilities to one of Amy's temperament. But the girl had acted quite upon her own judgment and contrary to her father's. Of course I see it all now in looking back," she said, tearfully. " The first step was — for me — a wrong step, and it took me by the way of paths which needed very sure-footed treading not to step over some precipice or otherwise get into danger." Then, in the hush of twilight, the soft, summer air stealing through the wide-open window which faced westwards ; the garden beneath, with its restful colouring and fragrance which ascended as an evening sacrifice to heaven, filling the room in which they were with the strangely-soothing influence to nerves and senses. Amy told the most troubled part of her story, pressing her thin and delicately shaped hands to her burning cheeks as she spoke of wrong and disgrace and flight — 226 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY anywhere to be beyond the knowledge or finding of her friends. Then came records of loss with loneliness and desolation, of hopeless depression, until one found her — her late mistress — working as sewing maid in a pension in Cannes, whither she had been taken by a young widow^ who was too glad to get a travelling maid to care much about any character beyond the one given by the register office, where she had gone with her needs. A most respectable young woman ; just the kind to suit you ; has been boarding here some time, and we know her to be a good needlewoman," etc., etc. Under the good influence of the lady who met with her at the pension, Amy had found hope again in life and living. She had aimed to rise on her dead self to higher things." Only that gentle mistress, of whom death so suddenly deprived her, knew her sad secret. The sister summoned to Cannes had been grateful to the maid who had showed such devotion to the one whom she came too late to see again in life. She had brought Amy home to England with her, and by her own desire found her a situation at Portbeach. Such was in brief Amy's story as told to Gertrude's sympathetic ears. But," said the listener, as the young girl paused, giving vent to feelings pent up and SICK-ROOM CONFIDENCES 227 all too ready to find a vent, what about your father ; surely he knows ? " No, poor father thinks of me, I hope, as dead. I came here to be near him — he has been moved to Portbeach, appointed to a position here — hoping for courage to seek him out, but it has never come. Oh, how could I spoil his life by burdening him with the secret of my disgrace ? " and Amy looked earnestly at the young lady to whom she had told her bitter tale of woe. But are you not sure of his love?" said Gertrude, a lump rising in her own throat (would, she thought, that she could be as sure of her father's). "Yes, he loved me then, but could he now?" whispered Amy ; but this time she did not look up ; the question seemed one long ago answered in her own mind. Love, true beautiful love, never alters," said Gertrude ; and she thought of Aubrey, and knew at that moment he was as much, yes, more to her than he had ever been in her life. But an interruption came before more could be said. The housemaid had arrived with re- freshment for the sick-room, and a bunch of roses for Miss Huntly, sent up by cook ''with her respects, hoping she would soon be able to be about again." It was strange that in less than forty-eight 228 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY hours Gertrude and Amy had changed places. The sewing-maid was laid up with the malady; the governess asked the doctor's permission to attend to her. She was well enough she w^as sure, and glad to be of service to her gentle nurse. Permission was given, but later, some ten days, a trained nurse was brought in. Amy had no rallying power. The illness itself was without complication, but the poor girl's system was totally unequal to bear strain or shock of any description. Miss Marshall meanwhile had been home for a few hours, to make plans likely to conduce to the comfort of the two invalids. Of course her little nephews could not come home yet — the whitewashers and paperhangers must do their work before such a step would be advisable — and she herself was enjoying the freedom of visiting old friends ; so, having made arrange- ments up to date for the household. Miss Marshall went away again, and the faithful servant who occupied the position of cook- housekeeper was once more in full charge. Gertrude spent much of her time in the gar- den when the trained nurse was on duty. Oh, how often in the day her thoughts turned to that dark prison cell where Aubrey would be living out so many hours in solitary con- finement ! And then the rich blood would SICK-ROOM CONFIDENCES 229 suffuse her cheeks and brow as a feeHng of indignation and anger filled her heart by reason of the cruel injustice of all that had meant con- demning an innocent man and letting the guilty- go free. Surely, surely the God of love and mercy would bring the hidden things to light and clear her husband's dishonoured name ! But how soon ? Must he go through to the bitter end of those seven long years, one of which had not yet passed ? At such times Gertrude found comfort in being as near to her husband as her presence within a mile of his prison suggested ; she thought she breathed the same air, heard the same sounds of gun-firing or bugle-call, and at times military music, and rested beneath the same starlit sky. It was, after all, but poor consolation ; yet to have been without it would have seemed to change the twilight to the darkest night of her sorrowful experiences. One day Dr. Meredith, who had been most attentive through Gertrude's illness, making her feel him to be not only her medical atten- dant but her friend, sought Miss Huntly out in the garden after paying his usual daily visit to Amy. I am afraid the poor girl is very seriously ill," he said, alluding to his patient upstairs. I am going to call in another opinion and supply 230 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY a second nurse; I must not let you be overdone. Grave symptoms have set in, and unless these quickly abate my patient cannot rally." The news was a great shock to Gertrude. Instinctively she thought that the poor girl so seriously ill, with none of her friends about her, must be sadly burdened in mind by the secret which stood between her and seeking out her father. When an hour later she took the nurse's place in the sick-room — probably her last opportunity of being alone with Amy, as with a second nurse her presence would be un- needed — she lost no time in urging her, ^*as she remained so ill," to send for her father. I dare not. Miss Huntly," said Amy in feeble tones, her lips visibly trembling. I am not strong enough to tell him all, and how could I see him without explaining ? " Let me go to him and tell him what you have told me," said Gertrude, impulsively. I would be very careful in what I said, and I could assure him of your penitence, your re- morse, your longing for his forgiveness. He would come at once to see you, and your heart would be made glad. Oh, Amy, it is worth the effort, dear! A few hours and your poor troubled mind might be at rest, and your hope of recovery would be so much greater if it were so ! " SICK-ROOM CONFIDENCES 23 I Amy was weeping silently ; her voice failed her, though her lips moved. At length the words came — Go and tell him all ; he is chief warder at the prison." Gertrude's heart bounded. Her whole being quivered with excitement. Was she actually empowered to find her way up to that gate, and within it, charged with a message from a dying daughter to one of the officials ? Refused admittance would be impossible, and then once there she would be at least within sight of her husband's cell, almost within sound of his voice perhaps. (She had a very confused idea of what existed behind the gate.) The thought unnerved her. She felt sick and giddy for a moment ; but rising from her chair as the nurse returned to her patient, she leant over Amy and whispered, I will go this afternoon, dear. It is sure to be all right, and your dear father will be bound to come and see you." Amy flashed upon her a look of gratitude, which revealed how deep had been the longing for the father whose anger she so greatly feared. Might not her troubled conscience be more or less responsible for the weakened state in which she lay to-day — that state around which the doctor gathered gravest fears ? CHAPTER XXI A STORY TOLD TO SYMPATHETIC EARS But Gertrude did not venture after all to the convict prison. Chancing on her way there to meet the good doctor who had shown such fatherly interest in his young patient, in answer to his question, Where are you hurrying off to. Miss Huntly ? May I give you a lift in my carriage ? See, it is over there in the shade," she had explained briefly her mission. Amy had relatives holding office in the prison. They did not know of her nearness to them ; she had grave matters to talk over with them." Then, my dear young lady," said the doctor, hastily, "be advised by me and have the inter- view at your own house. On every ground it would be better. You will have a better chance of a calm hearing out of sight and sound of prison life and discipline, and the very atmos- phere of pure officialism. Write for an appoint- ment ; say it is urgent — must be held within a few hours — life is in the balance. Bring the one most concerned within the touch of home life. If your interview is to partake of the 232 A STORY TOLD TO SYMPATHETIC EARS 233 nature of an appeal, gather about yourself circumstances most favourable to the making." I will take your advice," said Gertrude, at once convinced of the doctor's wisdom, and she hastened home again and wrote her letter. It was addressed to The Chief Warder," and • contained only a few brief sentences. "By the doctor's request I am writing to ask you to lose no time in coming to see your daughter. She occupies the position of sewing- maid in a family where I am nursery governess. She is very ill — dying, it is feared ; but an interview with yourself, if one of loving tenderness, might conduce to her recovery. At present she and I are in the house alone with the servants. Any hour you name will suit, but let it be (in the interests of Amy) with as little delay as possible. — Faithfully yours, ''Gertrude H. Huntly. '' 6'.— Please ask for me when calling." Having posted the letter, Gertrude waited with feverish anxiety the issue of the venture. Amy had to be told the changed plan of approaching her father. "It seemed best to make an appointment " was all the explanation Gertrude gave, sparing the poor girl the added excitement of expecting the interview to be at the house. When about noon the following day Amy said, wistfully, " I think you could get an answer Q 234 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY to your letter by the three o'clock post to-day, and then you could go at once, couldn't you ? " Gertrude promised to wait in that no time might be lost in getting the letter ; but she said no more. She was in the dining-room alone, having her lunch a little before two o'clock — the kind and sympathetic housekeeper putting her there rather than in the schoolroom, as the coolest room in the house — when a card was brought to her, upon which was written simply, " By appointment." ''Where have you shown him?" Gertrude asked, wondering if to say "the gentleman" or the person." "In the library, miss." "Thank you, I will go to him there," she said, rising at once and leaving the room. Gertrude had pictured the chief warder to be a man of stern exterior, manner, and deport- ment, touched by the severe discipline of prison life. She was both puzzled and astonished to find him quite the contrary. He was only of medium height, whereas Amy was unusually tall for a woman ; dark in his colouring — his daughter being fair — bright and genial in both manner and tone. At once she felt at home with him. If not a man of culture and good social standing, he was one of Nature's gentlemen. What greatly struck her at the time, and even more in A STORY TOLD TO SYMPATHETIC EARS 235 subsequent interviews, was a certain combina- tion of strength and tenderness. He could be strong, even to stern, uncompromising stoicism ; touch but another spring in his nature and he was tender even to tears; while all the time he gave the impression of being a very just man, one intolerant of severe treatment, if undeserved. Gertrude got through her explanation about Amy's sad history far better than she had anticipated. Every word she uttered was listened to with gentle, courteous attention. The kindly face which turned towards her with eager questioning made the telling of the story easy, simply because of the sympathy displayed. "Take me to her!" he exclaimed, as Gertrude paused, having explained how gravely the doctors thought of her condition. ''My poor darling ! what she must have suffered ! " Then he added, pathetically, '' Strange that all this should happen at this time when I am seriously contemplating resigning my present post to go abroad ! Amy has been so long as one dead to us, and yet but for her I should years ago have settled in America, where I have relatives who urge me to go to them." We draw the curtain over the meeting of father and daughter. Gertrude prepared Amy for the interview, then she and the nurse with- drew — within call if wanted. Half an hour 236 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY later and the chief warder came to them as they sat by an open window on a landing near, a glow of happiness upon his expressive face. If not intruding, I will call again to-morrow at this hour," he said. And each day for a week he came, using his dinner hour in this way, rejoicing to see his child improving in health ; conscious that his visits were doing much to promote her ultimate recovery. The first day when Amy was per- mitted to be carried into the garden chanced to be a Sunday afternoon, when the chief warder was off duty for the rest of the day. The housekeeper had begged Amy to keep her father to tea, hence his visit was prolonged, and when she grew tired and asked to be taken back to her room, having helped her there, he returned to the garden to take leave of Miss Huntly. Then came the opportunity Gertrude had waited for so long. She spoke to him of the prison, of its inmates ; painted a scene to him in vivid colours of a young girl she knew who, on her wedding day, was rudely severed from her husband, falsely accused of crime. She gave a pathetic description of an invalid mother, of the devoted life of this son ; his noble character, brave and fearless when duty was concerned, gentle and tender as a daughter might have been in his care of his afflicted A STORY TOLD TO SYMPATHETIC EARS 237 mother. In her house, almost in her presence, he was dragged off to prison and to his trial. She described the trial, the evidence of the chief witness, the writing-case with the strange strokes, as if a hand were practising to copy a signature ; of the missing latch-key, and of the senior partner's prejudice against the young man. She hinted that the whole thing was a well-arranged plot on the part of one evidently needing money, whereas the one condemned had, it was admitted, no need. No motive was forthcoming for the crime of which he was accused. All this Gertrude portrayed with spirit and energy ; then came a pause and a sudden breaking forth into weeping, and the chief warder knew without the telling that she was painting a history with which her own experience was strangely interwoven. In a fervour of wrath and indignation against the miscarriage of justice at the trial which should have cleared the innocent and given judgment against one (though it might be at the time some one unknown) to whom the evidence clearly pointed, he exclaimed, raising his hands in an impressive manner, " This beats all the painful stories I have ever heard. That poor suffering fellow deserves for the unexpected to happen ! " You mean," said Gertrude, turning her tear-stained face towards him, her mind sud- 238 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY denly grasping a new thought, "you mean, if such an one could escape from prison, such a thing would be quite right, quite justifiable ? Best not to say what I mean, young lady," replied the chief warder, "more than this, that if it ever came within my power to help an innocent man like the one you tell me of to get free from the position which will be making havoc with body and mind, I don't say I should not feel my duty to my Queen and country would stand first with me, and my obedience to prison rules second. But tell me, what might be your connection with the young gentleman ; I presume you are his — sister ? " Gertrude shook her head, as she buried her hot cheeks in her hands. Then, glancing up pathetically into the chief warder's face, she said, I am his wife, and that is why I am here, to be at least somewhere near him. Would I could share his imprisonment with him ! " Tears started in the honest eyes of the chief warder. We must remember he had been already touched by more than common grati- tude in realising that " Miss Huntly " had been the direct means of restoring his long-lost Amy to him. Naturally enough, the pathetic story he had listened to was doubly affecting when realising that the one who told it was actually the poor young wife from whom an innocent husband was torn on the very day of their marriage. A STORY TOLD TO SYMPATHETIC EARS 239 ''What is his number?" he said, in a voice scarcely above a whisper. And Gertrude repHed quickly, '' Seventy- five." " Then be assured," he continued, as he extended his hand to her, grasping hers in the warm hand-pressure of sympathy, "from this moment I shall take a very special interest in ' Number 75. '" And then he talked of Amy, how soon she would be ready to come home, how her step- mother longed to see her — at best she might only stay there on a visit, but the scheme of going abroad could now hasten forward ; then he took his leave, and Gertrude felt, she knew not why or wherefore, she did not dare to dwell upon reasons, he had left her in possession of a new and weighty treasure, even the treasure of hope. A few days later and, by the doctor s per- mission, Amy was allowed to accompany her father to his "quarters" within the prison walls. She had pleaded so earnestly to go ; it meant "home" to her whatever the surroundings. In a little while she would return to her life as a " sewing-maid " ; but now, to-day, she craved to be with her father. And now it was time for Gertrude to form some holiday plans. Miss Marshall had asked her to remain until a certain date when she 240 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY would return to see to the house being straightened before her brother and nephews came back. This gave Gertrude a Sunday by herself. On the Friday previous she received a letter from the chief warder ; it was brief and to the point. " Dear Miss Huntly, — Amy tells me you can play the church organ. Our organist will be away on Sunday ; would you like to take her place ? I want to test your pluck. Be prepared for a great strain and refuse to come if you feel it might be too much for you. Should you decide to take the service, be at the prison gate at nine and wait to be admitted. You will be expected ; the door will be opened without your needing to give notice you are there. You will be taken up to the organ loft ; the service over, you will leave as you came, without a word to any one. Send a line by return. Amy sends her love. — Yours faithfully, " Chief Warder. ''P.S. — Our usual organist is a connection of my wife's, so I can manage this little business nicely." Dare she accept ? Would her courage hold out if, once within the prison chapel, she realised that Aubrey himself was there, actually within a measurable distance ? Then her timidity gave way to courage. Of course she dare go through with this, and that which might mean a hundred A STORY TOLD TO SYMPATHETIC EARS 24 1 times more nerve, more effort, for was there not hushed up somewhere within the very act itself, hope of a might-be beyond ? If equal to one great strain, might she not be to another ? And if the unexpected were to happen, would it not be on the line of some special effort on her part ? With feverish haste Gertrude wrote and said how pleased she would be to preside at the organ the following Sunday. She presumed it would be the usual Church of England service with which she was quite familiar. CHAPTER XXII A SUNDAY SERVICE IN THE CONVICT PRISON The night before the morning which was to give Gertrude the right to enter the prison for a brief hour (where her husband was serving out his seven years' sentence for forgery — alas ! for the cruel wrong to an innocent man) found her very sleepless. She rose at early dawn and went towards the window. The little birds were softly twittering, holding experience meetings in the leafy branches of some well-grown trees as birds are wont to do in July. Their thanksgiving anthem of early spring-tide had been sung, the wooing days — in which some eager swain sang loud and clear his best to win his mate — had long since passed, making way for anxieties known only to fond parents who have to search for worm and fly wherewith to supply the tender needs of the fledgling. And now in the soft and balmy days of July there came a hush to these garden voices, but all the same they were sweet and com- panionable to Gertrude, who had felt strange 242 A SUNDAY SERVICE IN THE CONVICT PRISON 243 loneliness since Amy had gone to her father's home. Gertrude's musings always gravitated towards her imprisoned husband. But to-day they seemed to be outlined, to be definite enough, to take less hazy form. To-day life seemed no longer a mute endurance of a secret sorrow but peculiarly awake, vivid, and weighty with anticipations to which imagination gave rein ; strong with new feelings, new sensations, it was life trembling and tingling with — hope. And this very hope made her impatient for activity. The moments just then seemed as hours. How could she wait and retain the calm exterior which she always wore before others ? Since Amy left there was no one with whom to share her thoughts, none to minister sympathy, excepting the birds and the flowers ; but until now the pressure had never been so great of the secret her tired heart had carried all these months. Gertrude had opened her window wide and had seated herself upon a low ottoman, her flannel dressing-gown draping her lightly-clad figure. It was when feeling how long the time to wait before finding her way to the prison that, getting still nearer to the window, she stretched out her arms as if in mute appeal to heaven. Again and again her lips moved as if in silent prayer. The hidden forces of her 244 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY nature were stirred. Within a few hours she would be near the one who was never out of her thoughts. She would, on her organ stool, if her trembling hands found nerve to touch the notes, lead his voice in the Te Deum. Together they would say the Lord's Prayer. What matter a thousand other voices ; it would be to her just her own and Aubrey's which would repeat the " Our Father." And thus musing and praying — her prayer taking one unutterable longing, and laying it down speechless before a God of justice and mercy — even the anguished plea, " Release an innocent man from undeserved punishment" — time dragged itself along until The distant hum of moving multitudes astir, And all that in a city murmur swells, changed early dawn into the day begun, and Gertrude knew the world was peopled by others than herself and the little birds which had shared her solitude in the hours now passed. She dressed herself with the utmost care. Her breakfast was eaten with real appetite. Excitement made her eager even in the taking of food. Then the deep-toned clock of the parish church struck eight, and Gertrude knew that she must start on that absorbingly interesting journey which seemed to her the forerunner of blissful possibilities. A SUNDAY SERVICE IN THE CONVICT PRISON 245 Amy's father had broadly hinted in a letter which came after she had written to say she would preside at the organ, ''Get Sunday well over, and who knew what might be laid in store beyond ? " — mysterious allusions which had but one interpretation in Gertrude's mind. It was a hope, however remote and dim, which shed a ray of light upon Aubrey's escape. That the warder would help in some way to bring this about Gertrude had never doubted from the hour when she had poured her weird story into sympathetic ears, and heard the exclamation, '' This beats all the painful stories I have ever heard. That poor suffering fellow deserves for the unexpected to happen ! " The hour appointed for Gertrude to be at the prison gate was nine o'clock. She was there punctual to the moment. As she stood trembling with excitement and anticipation, she heard the clanging of keys and the jangle of a heavy door; then the portly form of the janitor appeared. He was one with a more genial face than she had expected to belong to the keeper of the prison gate. He beckoned mutely to her. The great door opened and the great door closed, and she found herself in a dim, deep-mouthed, vaulted stone passage, with a great iron gate still between her and the courtyard of the prison. The court looked pleasant, even homely, 246 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY with its green grass plots and parterres, with the length of the prison chapel for its background. She peered through the bars, watching with nervous, terribly-strained feelings the movements of a few warders in blue and brass, with whistles slung round them. Amy's father was not one of these. Then there was a sound as of the tramp of feet, and, turning in the direction from whence it came, she saw a regiment of prisoners marching through a long corridor open to the air, but cut off securely from the court by a formidable grille. A clang of bells, a jangle of keys, a creaking of iron gates, and she followed a warder, who led her up a stone staircase, mounting many steps, passing through a doorway at the top into the organ gallery of the prison chapel. Then for a moment the chief warder came forward to meet her. No words passed between them. He led her in silence to the organ and left her. His look had been kindly, sym- pathetic, with something like a father's anxiety, suggesting the question " Will this be too much for you?" that was all. Gertrude's heart was beating, but she walked erect, and as words were uncalled for, there was no need to test the steadiness, or otherwise, of her voice. She took her place at the organ and awaited the signal to start. Meanwhile the steady A SUNDAY SERVICE IN THE CONVICT PRISON 247 tramp of prisoners filing into their seats fell upon her ear with strange, pathetic sound ; somewhere among those thousand or more men was Aubrey, her innocent and beloved Aubrey. Would he feel, by some strange instinct such as we hear and read of when some are warned of approaching calamity or unexpected joy, " they were sure something was about to happen " — would he feel her nearness, and would it be too much for him ? The thought was agony. But no ; Aubrey, the Aubrey she knew and remembered, had strong nerves. Nothing would move him to betray his feelings. How quietly he had submitted to be taken in charge on that dreadful day not yet nine months ago! How nobly he had stood and faced the constables ! The chaplain came in in the familiar robe of the clergy, the governor rose from his seat and the congregation to their feet and the hymn started. For a moment Gertrude's trembling fingers had wandered over the keys without producing a sound. It was a pause not likely to be noticed by the officials and far less by the poor prisoners themselves, but the fact meant much to her ; it roused her, and the hymn was started with vigour, and throughout the organist did her part. The words sung had new and strange meanings to Gertrude from that day. She was so conscious all the while 248 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY that Aubrey's voice would be amongst the singers, and to him the hymn, apart from the home memories and associations, would be an intelligent rendering of praise. But to how many would the verses seem as out of all harmony with their surroundings and inmost thoughts. The hymn which opened that weird service was, " Before Jehovah's awful throne." Pa- thetically sad it sounded as sung by criminals, for the most part men who in losing a good name had lost hope and ambition, whose very tones were metallic, lacking the sweet vibrations of love. Surely the grand old hymn had found its way into the prison hymn-book to awaken home memories and inspire beneficent thoughts of a future which lay beyond the prison walls for those who to-day had their place in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps ! " After the first verse Gertrude forgot all else but that she was helping Aubrey to sing a hymn of which he had once spoken to her as one of his favourites. This was in one of those happy Sundays spent with her in the Vicarage home of her adoption. What would his thoughts be to-day as he sang out the words? — His sovereign power without our aid Made us of clay and formed us men ; And when like wandering sheep we strayed. He brougl;it us to His fold again. A SUNDAY SERVICE IN THE CONVICT PRISON 249 We are His people, we His care, Our souls and all our mortal frame ; What lasting honours shall we rear Almighty Maker to Thy name? Wide as the world is Thy command. Vast as eternity Thy love, Firm as a rock Thy truth must stand When rolling years must cease to move. It was during the reading of the lessons — the service throughout was that of the Church of England, the same as was being said and sung in thousands of churches that day in the British Empire — that Gertrude found her chance to look around her. The chapel v/as light and cheerful. God's sunshine was !^streaming in through the half-open windows; God's air smelt pure and sweet, but even as she thought so, Gertrude was conscious of other fumes, faint and suggestive of the sea. Then it dawned upon her mind that these would be the prison- tainted fumes of oakum, otherwise of old ships* ropes. '^'Hi^ She could only see the backs of the convicts in their brownish-yellow suits branded with the broad-arrow, row after row extending across the width and the length of the chapel ; the warders were seated on upraised seats, high above their charges to right and left, to watch and control their slightest movement. Never until that moment had Gertrude quite R 250 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY realised what the loss of personal freedom involved. Never had her heart felt such an aching pity for Aubrey. To think of him there, his head one of the thousand or more heads before her. Had she dwelt upon the fact she would have lost nerve. As it was, a feeling of faintness crept for the moment over her, but she battled against it and schooled herself to go through with the task she had undertaken. In this, quite unknown to herself, she was helped by the wonderful discipline and order which prevailed in the body of the chapel. ''Eyes front" is prison rule, and never could she detect a movement in the mass of heads below which could suggest to her mind other than strictest obedience to that law. At length the service closed. Gertrude could never remember more than the text of the sermon. At the moment it struck her as being well chosen — If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself." The last hymn sung was over, and the governor walked down the chapel in solemn dignity, followed by some officials ; then came the convicts, row after row, marching quietly out in obedience to the eye or finger of a warder. This would have been Gertrude s opportunity of glancing down upon the moving figures below on the bare chance that Aubrey might look up, but for his own sake and hers she dare not A SUNDAY SERVICE IN THE CONVICT PRISON 25 I hazard recognition there. So far all had gone well. Why not to the end ? She had forgotten to ask if it were usual for the organist to play- while the prisoners were passing out, but, on the impulse of the moment, she started Batiste's Andante, It was the last thing she had ever played upon the organ to Aubrey. It held precious memories. As her fingers glided over the keys in sympathetic runs, her left hand taking the melody in clear, pleading tones, there was a sudden pause in the line of men filing out. One had stayed as if arrested, throwing those who followed out of step. It was only a momentary pause, but one noted by the chief warder, who retained his seat until the chapel was clear. The one to create this sudden halt was Number 75. CHAPTER XXIII HOW THE UNEXPECTED " HAPPENED Gertrude Hastings had arranged to spend four or five weeks at a private boarding house in the neighbourhood. It was difficult to explain to Miss Marshall (who returned home the Monday after the events related in the last chapter to superintend whitewashers and paper- hangers and prepare the house for the coming back of her little nephews) that to go quite away just now would be too severe a trial to face unnecessarily. Had she gone further afield for her holiday it could only have been to take up her residence in a similar retreat. With the door at home closed against her, and Aunt Matilda" gone from Edgcombe Manor, and her good friends Mr. and Mrs. Brownlow abroad, Gertrude had nowhere to go. She was completely, in this respect, homeless and friendless. " I shall not be far away," she had said with heightened colour as Miss Marshall inquired what her holiday plans were likely to be, certainly for the next few days. I have arranged to go to the Fair View Boarding 252 HOW "THE unexpected" HAPPENED 253 House to await the issue of plans which are still uncertain." "You will be very comfortable there," Miss Marshall had replied, heartily. *' I know the people well ; they are eminently respectable, indeed, quite superior ! " She remembered Mrs. Brownlow s hint when testifying to Miss Gertrude Huntly s abilities and suitability for the position of governess to young children — " She had unfortunately been cut off from her friends by the most unjust action of a severe and uncompromising father ; it would be kind never to refer to the fact but to accept this ex- planation of Miss Huntjy's apparent isolation." Miss Marshall had acted upon the advice given, and when the boarding house plan was spoken of, accepted the statement without comment or surprise. So Gertrude and her luggage removed to Fair View on the Tuesday following the Sunday when she had presided at the organ. She had taken care to let Amy know her plans and present address, hence a letter which reached her late on Thursday night had lost no time in coming. Amy's handwriting was well formed and easy to read, but to-day her sentences were not well put together, giving Gertrude the impression that either she was pressed for time, or had been suddenly betrayed into great 2 54 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY nervousness. Still, there was quite enough in the latter's news to explain that she must have been labouring under feelings of great excite- ment when she wrote it. " What will you say when I tell you we're going to live abroad ? It's all decided, and no time has to be lost. We'll be leaving directly. I want so much to see you. Father says if you didn't mind we could spend a day or two at a farm house some few miles from this place. He'll anyway make the arrangements in case you incline — and you had better ; I can't quite tell you how important it is for you to come. Please don't let anything interfere. Father says if you'll come the same way you did on Sunday — Oh ! I forgot ; he told me to tell you he admired your courage and pluck. You'll find us on the move about nine o'clock. We shall be catching the 9.35 train. Bring a hand- bag with you, just enough in for the night. Excuse me writing so freely, but I never can forget your goodness to me when I was ill, and father feels very grateful too. And oh ! I forgot to tell you I quite love my stepmother now. And father says, if you do come, don't be late ; and perhaps you'd better not say much about where you're going to to any one. Prison rules are so strict. I have just remembered I never told you the day we leave : it's Friday, the night after you get this letter, which you needn't HOW **THE unexpected" HAPPENED 255 please answer, as, of course, you'll be there. — Yours sincerely and gratefully, Amy. *'P.S. — My neuralgia is as bad as ever." Gertrude s heart was beating, audibly beat- ing, after re-reading the letter. Was there a hint in it that "the unexpected" might happen ? Her cheeks flushed, then suddenly paled. She made an excuse, and stole away to her room. Twenty-four hours only before she would know. There was but little sleep for her that night. The next day she kept much to her room. ** She would be going away for a day or two. She had letters to write." Exactly at nine on that memorable Friday night Gertrude reached the prison gate. Two cabs were already there, each well-laden with luggage, but the prison door was closed. She walked about as who was expected there might do, keeping her eye upon the spot from which she looked for Amy to emerge. At length there was the sound of jingling keys, the moving of a bar and the door stood open, only a little space, just far enough to comfortably allow a human being to pass out ; and then it closed as Amy appeared, closely veiled and with a thick woollen shawl about her mouth and head. She was laden with wraps ; scarcely anything of her face was visible ; her voice was very unsteady as she bid Gertrude 256 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY get into the cab nearest. She took her seat, asking the driver to wait until the others came out before starting. **Were they in plenty of time?" ''Yes, miss, we can soon cover the ground this quiet night," was the reply; "there's next to no traffic you see at this time of day." Amy put her wraps down on the seat in front, drawing the shawl which covered her head and mouth a little more closely round her. "Oh, this awful neuralgia," she exclaimed, "I have lost so many nights' rest I feel quite unnerved." Then she added more brightly, I think we could make room for father in our cab, don't you? That will leave mother and aunt to themselves in the other cab." (This was spoken loudly enough for the cabman, as he stood by the door, to hear every word.) Gertrude was sure it could be managed, and then, suddenly starting up, Amy exclaimed, "Oh, I have forgotten something. Will you take care of my wraps for me. Miss Huntly, while I run back for my hand-bag ? " She pushed the door open as the cabman unlatched it and hastened off ; at a given signal the prison door opened to her from within. It was only a few seconds later, just time enough to reach her father's quarters and return, and she came back accompanied by the chief warder. She was stooping at the moment, busily engaged HOW "THE unexpected" HAPPENED 257 in closing a small bag, the lock of which appeared to be troublesome. ''Come, my dear," said he, hastily; "don't lose time or we shall miss our train. Get in, while I see after your mother and aunt, and then, as you are so nervous about being by yourself, ril come in your cab. Beg pardon. Miss Huntly, I had forgotten you were in that dark corner. Have the goodness to help Amy close that troublesome bag!" and shutting the door after his daughter had stepped into the vehicle, he hurried off to the assistance of the two other ladies who at that moment appeared, each laden with a bundle of shawls. ^ " Let me help you. Amy," said Gertrude, putting her hand for the bag in question, which she was allowed to take from the trembling hand which held it without resistance. At that moment Amy sneezed twice and raised her handkerchief to her face, already almost hidden in the shawl. *' Oh, I hope you have not taken cold, dear," Gertrude said, sympathetically. " I am so sorry your neuralgia continues to trouble you so much. The change will do you good, and I will take such care of you." "There now, we're off!" exclaimed the chief warder, returning at that moment and hastily entering the cab and taking his seat opposite to Gertrude ; " but it's something to have got 258 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY two middle-aged ladies and all their belongings safely started. Oh, but it has been a business v/ith one thing and another ! All right, cabby — station ! And as quietly as you can go without losing time, as my daughter has been ill," he added, as if suddenly awakening to the fact that the cabman was still standing by the door and waiting for his orders. The other cab had already started, and no time was lost in following it. There was all the rumble and shaking peculiar to a four- wheeled vehicle of the cab order when ia motion, and Gertrude did not feel in the mood to talk, even had the circumstances of the moment conduced to her doing so. She was in some way feeling sad at heart, disappointed. - The removal of the chief warder from the prison seemed to distance her from Aubrey ;. while he was there she felt a nearness which had been of late an untold comfort. Then, again, the unexpected had not happened. Had some one called her in when reaching the prison gates and told her now was her chance for a few words with her husband, she would have taken it all quietly ; or, seeing him alone, had he said to her, Gertrude, I have found a way of escape, and feel justified, as an innocent man, in taking it," she would have received the news joyfully, but without emotion. She HOW "THE unexpected" HAPPENED 259 had schooled herself to meet the unexpected when it chanced to come along without display of feeling. But to be sitting in a cab with Amy and her father, each moment taking her further away from Aubrey — this was too terrible to contemplate. Still, hope was not altogether non-existent. Perhaps plans would be talked over concerning Aubrey in this visit to the farm so kindly arranged for her. My dear young lady," said the chief warder, breaking in upon her thoughts, leaning forward, and speaking in low but very distinct tones, be prepared for a great surprise. When we reach the station I am ' hoping you may be joined by — " he paused and glanced round uneasily, as if afraid of being overheard. My husband ! " said Gertrude in a hushed voiqe, but one literally charged with the elec- tricity of excitement. Yes, I have planned that he, not Amy, goes with you to the farm house ; only until to-morrow ; it would not be safe to stay longer. My cousin is in the secret, and all necessary clothes into which he will, I hope, at once change on arrival, will be in readiness ; you will, I quite hope, be able to manage the rest. Amy accompanies her mother and myself by the 9.40 express to Bristol, on our way abroad. Your train starts before ours on the loop line." But shall I really see him ? How have you 26o THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY managed it ? How has it all come about ? '* exclaimed Gertrude, in short, jerky sentences ; she was literally panting for breath in her excitement. ** Ah, that is my secret," said the chief warder, with a little laugh. ''Not even my wife or Amy knows its mysterious history. See, here are your two tickets ; I had to be at the railway this morning, and thought to save time. When we reach the station you will carry Amy's wraps, and your bag if you can manage it, straight into the ladies' waiting- room. I will come to you when I have got your husband safely in the train. I will see you have a carriage to yourselves. Remember, his safety depends entirely upon your pluck to go through with everything quietly. You are only going three stations down the line, to a place called South Hill ; a private conveyance will meet you there. The address is Ivy dene Farm, South Hill, a pleasant drive of five miles. And now. Amy, when we get to the station you had better come and get at once into your train," he said, addressing Amy, who had all this time been gazing out of the window. We too," he added, have our parts to play if we would see ourselves safely on board our steamer to-morrow." Oh, how I thank you for your help," Gertrude said, with streaming eyes, to be gently silenced by the chief warder's Hush." HOW ''THE unexpected" HAPPENED 26 1 When the cab drew up at length at the station, Gertrude did as she was bidden. Taking Amy's wraps in one hand and her bag in the other, she started in silence from the cab. So far, so good," the chief warder said to himself as she hurried off in the direction of the first-class ladies' waiting-room. " Now, Amy," he said aloud, " you had better come and take your seat in the train. See, your handbag is open again." Amy stepped down and attended to it, following her father as directed by a porter to l^o. 7 platform ; less than five minutes later he sought out Gertrude. "This way, Miss Huntly, please," he said, cheerfully, adding when they reached the plat- form, as he walked by her side, carrying her bag and Amy's bundle of wraps, *' these rugs are for you — my daughter's little gift, with her love. I would we might hope to meet again, but I fear your only safety will be in hiding away until things are cleared up. Get into a city ; change your name ; take matters quietly and hopefully ; they are bound to come right some day." He spoke in hushed tones. Then as they paused before a first-class carriage door at the end of the train, he grasped her hand. " God bless you both," he said, in a husky voice, and before another moment had passed he had gone, and Gertrude, with trembling footsteps 262 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY and almost sick with excitement and expecta- tion, mounted the step and entered the com- partment, the guard coming up at the moment and locking her in. Glancing nervously into the far corner, she saw what she believed to be Amy's muffled figure ; surely it was the same as the one who had accompanied them in the cab ? Then the truth dawned upon her. She sank far back into the seat without daring to glance a second time at the one who was engaged intently looking out through the window nearest. The supposed Amy, the last one to come into the cab, was Aubrey. Even while they sat thus in silence, Gertrude realised she was in the presence, not of her mentally strong and physically vigorous husband, but of a crushed and broken-spirited man. Poor girl, she had to experience, as others have done, that sweet liberty cannot restore all at once that which captivity has deprived a man of. To a far greater extent than she had ever deemed possible, the Aubrey from whom she had parted barely ten long months ago was only a wreck of his former self. It is the first few months and year or two of convict life which make their deep mark upon a man doing his "penal service"; the longer the incarceration the more mechanical the life, and the less chance of new experiences carving their HOW *'TfIE unexpected" HAPPENED 263 impressions upon the mind. As the train left the station she moved into the seat beside him. " Aubrey ! " she exclaimed, in a tone scarcely- above a whisper, but there was suppressed joy and surprise in it. " Gertrude, my faithful Gertrude," said the muffled figure, visibly shaking with excitement, and something like a sob was in his voice. Their hands met and neither spoke again, but on the first sign of slackening speed Gertrude returned to her seat at the other end of the carriage. After all, the strain of this singular experience was almost more than she could bear. Would it be too much for Aubrey? To relax at all, for them now to lose control of their feelings, and all would be lost. Oh, for strength and courage to keep perfectly calm ! Gertrude was scarcely more anxious about a possible breakdown at this point than was the one who had laid most carefully the plan of an innocent man's escape from the convict prison. The chief warder sat in silence as the Bristol express bore him and his wife and Amy on their way to the steamer which was to carry them from England on the morrow. He alone was responsible for the scheme, but others were involved in it; and to all, if once discovered, it would mean ruin and disgrace. Some one had to be in the secret that the widowed aunt whose name was entered in the book as arriving 264 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY at the prison at noon that day, left an hour or two later without the fact being recorded. The same some one knew that, whereas the chief warder's daughter had hurried from the cab in which she had already taken her seat back to her father s quarters for her handbag, she had been personated on the return journey to the cab by one dressed like herself, she meanwhile donning a heavy mantle and widow s bonnet, beneath the deep crape veil of which had been visible a curled grey fringe, similar to the one which adorned the brow of the aunt who came at noontide and left in the early afternoon. There was another, too, concerned in this strange rescue of the innocent ; one to whom had been entrusted the duty of carrying out plans — no matter of what nature — which would fix the clue to the escape, when discovered the following morning, as associated with a drop from the cell window and a hazardous leap of several feet, baffling all traces of the missing man at a time when every hour gained would be a boon. No wonder the chief warder again and again, as the train bore them further away from the present with all its painful associations, wondered if "Miss Huntly " would be equal to the strain imposed upon her, and pictured the dire calamity for all concerned which must come as a sequence to discovery." CHAPTER XXIV THE FARM VISITORS The mistress of Ivydene Farm was watching impatiently for the arrival of her guests. She thought it a good thing that the moon was at its full, and this particular night was clear and would have been well-lighted by the myriad stars which were shining so brilliantly. Her husband was a careful driver, and the small covered waggon was no weight for the horse. A thunderstorm in the afternoon had well laid the dust, and the roads could not be better for the journey, which ought to be made, under favourable circumstances, in about forty minutes. But, calculating the train had been fairly punctual, they had been nearly an hour and a quarter. What could have happened ? Had something taken place to upset the wonderfully well-planned scheme ? Mrs. Sheppard had *'gone cold and hot" many times that day when picturing the con- sequences to all concerned of a breakdown. But she had great faith in her cousin, the chief warder, and faith in his faith in that plucky little wife who had played the prison chapel S 265 266 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY organ last Sunday week. No fear of her nerve failing her ; but what would he be like ? Her cousin had often told her that prison life knocked the strongest into bits, particularly where it chanced to be some one of good birth who was the prisoner. Supposing No. 75 had fainted in the train, or had a fit just as he was getting out, or — What rubbish to bother one's head about the might -he's which never happen in real life ! " she mused. It's best to take things as they come — a day at a time, as mother used to say, bless her! and that cut up into hours and moments! I think I'll go and wash through those towels. Eliza starts early to- morrow — if it isn't to-morrow already ; it's best to be busy if one would keep one's-self in good spirits," and good Mrs. Sheppard bustled about and got her washing-tub out into the back- yard, putting it in its accustomed place on a large, flat stone. She was proceeding to tuck up her sleeves, having put a large apron over the good dress with which she had clothed herself in honour to her guests, prior to baling out the water from a rain-tub close at hand, for practical Mrs. Sheppard knew that a good day's wash could be got through in an emergency in cold rain water far better than in semi-warm water, which housewives called ''cruelly hard." She THE FARM VISITORS 267 had just reached this stage when she heard Dobbin's measured tread coming along the well-made high road, off which one had to turn to reach the farm. All my preparations for nothing ! " she said to herself, whisking off her apron and fastening lier gown cuff sleeves in eager haste, and then she laughed. ''No, it s not been lost time," she mused, ''for I've kept my nerves steady by being busy. I may need them to be strong before I've sent my guests well on their journey." As she came round to the front, the clatter of the waggon on the gravel road towards the house sounded quite pleasant. A little nearer and her husband whistled three times shrilly. This had been the arranged signal if the unex- pected had happened, and Molly was to be what her Tom Sheppard called " extra special on her guard." "I've picked Inspector Benson up coming along, Molly," her husband called out as he reined in Dobbin at the gate. "Take him in and give him a bit of supper, while I help the young ladies out ! " "So I will," said Mrs. Sheppard, brightly. " Come along, inspector, you'll be wanting to get on your way. I'll come back to you in a minute or two, dear girls," she called back over her shoulder, and she hastened the policeman into the house. 268 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ** I say, it was just my good luck," exclaimed the inspector as he stepped in long strides by the side of the farmers wife. '*Your good husband does happen to give me a lift more often than not when I come this road, market nights, between eight and nine, but this doesn't happen to be market night, and it's nearer mid- night than nine o'clock, so I say it was all my luck." I know my Tom is always glad to oblige you," said Mrs. Sheppard, brightly, ''and I can tell you there's no one I like better to entertain, especially when you're not in a hurry, for then you give me some of your nice tales ; they're better than the ghost stories I tell my husband." By this time they had entered the house and passed into the little sitting-room in which the fragrance of roses, standing in high old- fashioned vases on the mantelshelf, and the less fragrant oil of a paraffin lamp placed on the centre of the supper table, were in the fulfilment of each special mission strangely suggesting that life's experiences were in- variably mixed. I expect I've the beginning of a good story in my hands to-night," he said, sitting down and passing his handkerchief over his forehead moist with heat. Indeed, now, have you really ? " said Mrs. Sheppard, pausing at the door -just as she was THE FARM VISITORS 269 leaving the room to return to "the girls," sending her husband in to look after his friend. Come, do tell us." Well, it's only the start you see," said the inspector, smiling and well pleased with his hostess' good appetite for his strange tales. I was just leaving our office at South Hill when we got a wire. Bless me, it's known all over England by this time. * Con- vict escaped ; tall, fair, blue eyes ; dropped thirty feet from his cell window ; not in much trim for going far afield ; No. 75 ' " " Oh, how you startle me ! " exclaimed Molly Sheppard, whose face had grown almost livid in hue. Dearly as I love to hear your tales, I never sleep for a night or two after you've told me them. I suppose it's my sympathetic nature ; don't you ? But don't say anything before my nieces. Amy's had a dreadful illness ; and the child has no nerve. As to Arabella, she's strong enough for anything ; you needn't mind ker. Excuse my running off. I'll send my husband in to you. Help yourself to whatever you find on the table," and the active little woman had run off, leaving the inspector more than ever struck with her brightness. Come, my dear girls, but you do look as if you needed a wash. Tired, are you, poor Amy ? " he heard her say as they passed the 270 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY wide-open window. Then the farmer came in, and the young ladies were conducted upstairs to their room. Mrs. Sheppard quickly rejoined them, and she brought Arabella with her. "Amy is completely done up," she said, looking anxiously towards her husband. I am sending her up a little supper ; I have coaxed her to go to bed at once." I thought she was unusually silent for a young lady," ventured the inspector, ''as we came along. I noticed this young lady did most of the talking." " Oh, nothing ails Arabella," said Mrs. Shep- pard, briskly. Put her to walk ten miles and she would return as energetic as she started, but Amy quite outgrew her strength as a girl, and she is always a little bit of an invalid." " She will soon get all right in this glorious air," said the inspector, warmly. Then he divided his attention between the farmer and his supper. "If you chance to get any stray hands cater- ing for a job, keep them, and send for me," he said, as he imported into his mouth almost the fourth of a lettuce. " Looking for some one ? " said the farmer, watching the masterly ease with which the inspector reduced the imprisoned lettuce be- tween his massive jaws. THE FARM VISITORS 271 ''Yes, an escaped convict," he replied, and proceeded to give Mr. Sheppard the particu- lars he had already given his wite. '' Poor beggar," said the farmer, sympa- thetically, ''I'd give him a fair start before you look for him. He'd be a bit stiff and sore after such a drop, if he hasn't sprained an ankle or two ! " " One's compelled to go through with one's duty," answered the inspector, *'or we might find ourselves in durance vile. But it isn't a pleasant task, I can tell you, to run to earth a poor chap who's sick with joy in getting free. I remember a bitter night the first winter I came here. We'd had a wire at the office as it might be to-night, and my mate and me — we lodged together, that's how we got a bit friendly, you see — made off our different ways with our eyes well front for what might happen. Well, we'd only been parted at the most twenty minutes when who should I see before me, walking on the roadway, but a poor creature of a fellow who was just walking in a broken circle. Now, you would have said he had had a drop too much and couldn't go straight. But oh, no ! it wasn't that at all ; he simply couldn't keep line because he had been accustomed to his daily march round and round yon prison courtyard. I spotted him in a moment — you can always tell a convict by his walk — and I 272 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY went up to him as gently as I could go all in'^a rush, and put my hand on his shoulder. He'd got an old wide-awake well down over his ears, but it didn't hide his closely cropped hair in front. And, oh, my ! what piteous eyes turned to me as I said, * Now, what's your business here ? You know where you ought to be.' * Oh, do give me a chance, sir ; I beg you let me go,' he said with a voice as sweet as a woman's ; 'another mile and I'm safe. I've an old grandmother living in the gamekeeper's lodge at Park Woods, and she'd die before she gave me up — she would indeed, sir.' " * What's that to me?' I said, trying to speak sharp, but I could have cried — those eyes were just like my dead Maggie's — when — " *'When what.'^" asked the farmer, for both his wife and Arabella were by this time in tears. *' Well," continued the inspector, clearing his throat, '' my bootlace broke. It just snapped in two, leaving me with a loose uncomfortable boot which would have fallen off I do believe if I had attempted to walk on there and then without remedying matters. So I stooped down and attended to it ; and, would you believe it ? when I had got it tied together and made to do, somehow that fellow, with my Maggie's eyes, had gone — clean gone out of sight ; and as things would happen, a man came along riding THE FARM VISITORS a bike without a light, and by the time I had stopped him and taken his address I had I knew no chance of catching up the youngster." Did you never hear what became of him ? " inquired the farmer, brushing his coat sleeve over his eyes and looking as if the story had deeply touched him. ''Never!" was the reply. "To the best of my knowledge I don't think he was ever caught. Once I thought I'd go and see the old grandmother in the woods, but there, you see, a busy man like me has no time for society calls. I must be off now, or I'll have a very meagre report to give in about my search for No. 75. He'll not get far after that drop. It shakes them up above a bit, and he'll be very stiff to-morrow." Then the inspector hurried off and Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard and "Arabella" sat looking at each other with white, scared faces. "He will call in the morning, he is bound to do," said the farmer, the first to find his voice ; " and the next day and the next." "Then," said Mrs. Sheppard, "the best thing for poor Amy will be to keep her in bed for a week or two. Nothing requiring the doctor, but a bad attack of neuralgia com- pletely prostrating her. We will send the maid away to-morrow for a holiday ; she has long wanted the chance of visiting a married sister at Peterborough." 2 74 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY And upon this ''Arabella" went upstairs to "Amy" and gave "her" a detailed report of all that had taken place. Then, too terrified to have a light, they sat together by the window with hands clasped, and talked far on into the night of all the future held in store for them so soon as Aubrey's good name was cleared. And the days which followed were full of peace in spite of occasional anxiety lest the inspector should chance to call. As a matter of fact, beside a few words with the farmer at a distance remote from the house, he did not chance again to come that way. Aubrey appreciated the good food, more especially the bountiful supply of milk and eggs, and the comfortable bed which he was glad to keep for the few days which had followed his escape. The improvement in his looks was marked. And as his hair grew and his skin resumed something of its soft and healthy glow, he became much more pre- sentable in appearance. The clothes sent were a tourist suit of grey tweed, with a cap to match. The first day he donned these the farmer grew anxious lest the talk should get about that their house gave hospitality to one of such high bearing. Hence they planned a day or two's longer holiday for the servant, and before her return "the visitors" had gone. Mr. Sheppard had THE FARM VISITORS driven them to a station some fourteen miles away, having lent his guests a few pounds to begin life upon, and begging them to take their own time in repaying it. Within six months he had the loan returned, with a letter, every line of which breathed gratitude ; no address was given, the writer saying, until the dawn of the long -hoped -for day which should right the wrong, they knew they must hide even from their friends if they wished to be secure." Meanwhile Gertrude, when first in London, had begged her luggage to be forwarded to a governess' institute, writing to Miss Marshall to explain her movements by stating the fact of her marriage. ''You will be surprised to hear," she said, that I am married. My beloved husband is a man worthy of highest honour. We are not too well off just now, but if you think it right for me to sacrifice a month's salary in lieu of notice, my husband is quite willing for me to do so." To which suggestion Miss Marshall made quick reply. " I could not hear of your doing anything of the sort. Of course we are very sorry to lose you, and, I must allow, I think your marriage hurried ; but I read between the lines that you had been engaged for a long time, and I am 276 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY quite sure your husband deserves to be con- gratulated. I suppose, as you give me the name of Huntly, you must have married a cousin ? " To this day Miss Marshall has never had this suggestion on her part set right. CHAPTER XXV ''DOWN ON HIS luck" It is a terrible thing to be hopeless and home- less in a great city where all too plainly the apostolic dictum, **No man liveth unto himself," is fairly well set at naught and contradicted, turn which way you will. It is interesting to study character under these conditions. If a man be far on in years he talks incessantly about the past, lighting up the darkness of his present lot by throwing in a little sunshine created by pleasant reflections. Thus the other day an apparent tramp, begging, quietly let it be admitted, his night's lodging of a passing stranger, when questioned about his up-to-date history, summed it up in a word or two, ''awfully down on my luck," but talked glibly of the days when he got his articles into the evening papers, and the pleasure of taking one's seat at the reporters' table, and the excite- ment of producing good copy. He had had no dinner that day, and apparently there was no night's lodging in view, and the stony streets might be his portion to tramp from darkness to dawn ; but all the same he got a very fair 277 278 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY amount of complete enjoyment out of tales he told of the ''had beens," and alluded quite incidentally to the fact that his father was once rector in a seaport town. A younger man, one who is too near his past to see it in the pleasant focus which invites reflection, is far more inclined to be bitter and full of complaint. He invariably poses as a martyr. It is some one else's fault, not his own, that his life has been a failure. But if every one had his rights he would be enjoying at the present moment a fortune which drifted away from him to ''a fellow who had not the slightest claim upon it," and so forth. His mind is full of self-pity and bitter comment. Perhaps the class most to be commiserated is that associated with still younger men who have made a hurried ride to ruin, and are, as it were, still out of breath with their adventure ; to whom the excitement of wrong-doing never tracked home presents fascinations of a kind which keeps a quickened pulse and means spurts of speculative enterprise in the direction of a particular bent. These are the fools who say in their heart, ''There is no God." All one to them the sins and shortcomings of life, so long as they are not called upon to answer for their wrong-doing. Let only another opportunity present itself, and they are ready for it. DOWN ON HIS LUCK " 279 Of this class and kind was Stanley Pritchard. All the same, he was practically homeless, and up to a certain point hopeless. The senior partner had found him out. Buncer knew him to be a hypocrite. He had been left without an alternative. There was nothing for it but to abscond before worse luck followed him. Cer- tainly no one suspected him of the forgery ; nor would they be likely to. What object could he have had ? As every one knew, he had won considerable sums at cards at that time, and was actually investing three hundred pounds at the very time of the trial, monies he had won, as witnesses had proved in the senior partner's presence only the week before the date of the forgery. Still, that was quite eighteen months ago, and the pounds had Ipng since dwindled to shillings and the shillings to pence, and to-day his pockets were empty, while he was ''on the look-out" for an odd job of work. True, he inight have gone abroad to his people, but he would rather starve in England than grow rich in the colonies ; why this was so was best known to himself. So to-day he must, by hook or by crook, find something to do, for he had actually spent his last penny, and he already owed various borrow- ings to friends who had once been willing to lend him small sums to tide over " a great need. 2 8o THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Halloa, Shafto, where have you sprung from ? " he asked, suddenly addressing a young man whom he chanced to come face to face with just at the juncture of Fleet Street and the Strand. The young man in question was neatly dressed, but his coat was white at the seams, and his necktie (green and gold — a good one, doubtless, in the days of its youth) had that indescribable twist about it which suggests it had been tied once too often. Stanley read at a glance that his old chum of former days, the one who had been sum- marily dismissed from Catchpool Brothers after troubles which had threatened his own safe standing in connection with the firm, was very decidedly *'down on his luck." He was quite prepared for the candiH admission, for Cyril Shafto made no secret of his up-to-date history when chance threw them together. ''Yes, I'm a bit under water just now," was the reply, **but I've the promise of work if I keep clear of drink for six months, four of which are nearly over — a clerkship which will put me on my feet again; and I'm having a real struggle for it, so you won't tempt to treat a fellow now, will you ? " The sentence wound up so pathetically that even Stanley was touched. Never fear," he said, warmly, I only wish I had half your chances. I was never lower DOWN ON HIS luck" 281 down than now ; my people have all gone abroad, so I can't play the penitent prodigal any more; I'm on my own resources entirely, and I'm penniless and wanting a job. Don't you think they might find an office stool for me beside yours, Shafto ? only, as I'm not on probation, I could go at once." Shafto shook his head, then suddenly a smile passed over his face. If you really mean you're wanting a job to-day, and don't mind what, I think I could put you in the way of earning two-and-sixpence, and as work goes, better paid than some ; but are you joking, or are you in earnest ? " I'm in dead earnest," said Stanley. I spent my last shilling on a substantial break- fast, not knowing where the next meal was to come from. Even two shillings and sixpence will not come amiss ; say a shilling for a bed somewhere, and ninepence for a good supper ; to-morrow will have to take care of itself, with the few coppers in hand to start it." Then come with me into Chancery Lane ; I'm just fetching my work from a Despatching Agent, and I can promise you some too." But you haven't told me the kind of work it is yet ? " said Stanley, turning round and linking his arm in that of his friend's. Addressing envelopes — very straightfor- T 282 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ward. Some people only pay 2s. 3d. a thousand, but my employer gives 2s. 6d." And do you work on the premises, may I ask ? " said Stanley, who, as he spoke, saw visions of his old home, and remembered certain teaching of which he, by^a wave of thought, was at that moment reminded — The way of transgressors is hard." True, and a great mountain of transgression stood between the boy Stanley riding his Shetland pony in his father's meadows and the young man who to-day was seriously contemplating earning 2s. 6d. by addressing a thousand envelopes. No, we fetch our work," replied Shafto ; and there's a men's lodging-house in Drury Lane where you are allowed — that is, if you lodge there — to use a good common room, with a long table well supplied with pens and ink." Could a fellow take his work there ? " asked Stanley. Certainly, if you come with me and hint that you will want a bed for a night or two. It is very decent as things go ; and if you keep yourself to yourself, you might as well be there as anywhere else." So it was agreed, and within half an hour from that time Stanley found himself earning an honest penny in a way which was entirely new to him. He did far too much staring about him to make quick progress with his **DOWN ON HIS luck" 283 work. Shafto reminded him that he would ^ need all his wits about him to get through his thousand envelopes, and deliver them before the office closed at which they were due that evening. Thus admonished, Stanley kept his eyes well on his work. Then a slight cough, from a man at the lower end of the table, sitting on the opposite side, caused him to look up hastily. The next moment and turning a white face towards his friend Shafto, Stanley said in a whisper, "Who on earth is that fellow? It's the ghost of a man I know — Shafto, tell me what his name is." *T tell you I know no one here," said Shafto, never lifting his eyes from his work, *'and don't talk. If you can't help, don't hinder, as the copy-books say. If you mean to laze it, I must get my thousand done nevertheless." But," continued Stanley, who all the time cast fitful glances in the direction of the other end of the table, I tell you I must know. I could never work a jot with that face haunting me. Shafto, that man sitting there is as like as two peas to a man now serving his time in a convict prison. No, man, I tell you it's not his brother, for he hadn't one. If it's not his ghost, it's himself." " Hush, he'll hear you," said the indefatigable Shafto, still writing on mechanically, his eyes 284 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY fixed upon a book of addresses which lay open before him. In his excitement Stanley had raised his voice, and the stranger at the end of the table turned his way, and, was it fancy? grew very red. Then he rose quickly from his seat and left the room. What mad impulse possessed Stanley at that moment to go after him ? It was only to find him hastily quitting the lodging-house. There was no fancy about it now; the fact was clear enough. The man, Pritchard thought to be Aubrey, did not like his observation. Once outside the door and he ran ; Stanley, bent on clearing up the mystery, ran too, giving chase. As they neared Charing Cross Road he came sufficiently up with him to call, with the hope of being heard, Rice, Aubrey Rice, stop ! " he exclaimed ; but his breathlessness through running, as also his agitation, gave a harshness to his tones. No one would have thought it was a friendly voice which called ; least of all the man who fled from his pursuer. Then there was a pause, a lumbering dray cart getting in the way, and before Stanley could continue his pursuit the man he followed was out of sight. *'Well, that beats everything I have ever heard by way of romance," said Stanley to himself, as he turned back with the full I "DOWN ON HIS luck" 285 intention of retreating his steps to the lodging- house where he had left Shafto. What's he doing out of prison at this time ? The thing's pretty clear ; he's bolted, found his opportunity and taken it, and of course it's the last thing he wants to happen to meet an old friend like me. Well, I never did though ! Poor chap, what a come down to his pride, and — and — well, it was rather a shame to corner him over that forgery business. 'Pon my word, if he had been civil to me to-day, who knows, I might have dropped him a hint. But there, Stanley Pritchard, what's the meaning of this? you are getting too soft-hearted. You are not going to be fool enough to find quarters for yourself in a convict prison ! Well, . . . goodness alive ! — I never did — so it's really you, Judith ! And, please, what may you want of me ? " This last remark was addressed openly, as Stanley came to a sudden stop, to a little lady in furs who at that moment stood still and placed her hand on his arm. I am so thankful I met you, Stanley ! " she exclaimed, and her breath came and went fitfully. " I have returned to England on pur- pose for an interview with you." ''After promising never to trouble me again," Stanley said, but not unkindly. The fact was he had, while meditating upon Aubrey, made 286 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCE Up his mind not to return to the lodging-house where he had left Shafto lest he should be betrayed into making a confession in reference to the forgery case, and this being so, he was wondering where his next meal was to come from. The appearance of Judith upon the scene gave a hopeful suggestion about the settlement of that question. So much was he taken up with the surprise of seeing the man he had wronged that his wife's sudden appear- - ance he treated rather as a matter of course. " Have you dined yet ? " his wife asked in very natural tones, as if to meet her husband in this way were an everyday occurrence. No, but I just feel as if I would like to," was Stanley's reply ; that is," he added, if I were invited out to dinner. I've overdrawn my bank account, and I'm what you might call hard up just now." Well, give me the pleasure of inviting you to a meal," said Judith, brightly. "Where shall we go ? This is quite a strange neigh- bourhood to me." ''If you are not ashamed to be seen walking beside me, we will get into the Strand. There are plenty of places there. I hope you have in mind something more substantial than an ABC?" ''Certainly," said Judith, briskly, "if you let me off with a five-shilling dinner, I shall feel I **DOWN ON HIS luck" 287 have done well. Let it be understood it is not to include alcoholic drinks, for since leaving England I have never touched them, and never mean to again." Humph, now that's what I call mean," said Stanley, laughing softly to himself, "just when I had longed, too, for a glass of whisky. Oh, Judith, don't be hard upon a chap. I'm quite a moderate drinker, I assure you, but to give up everything in this way is too much to ask, when you have already promised to spend more on my dinner to-day than I sometimes manage to spend in a week." Stanley's tones were full of banter. Judith, however, remained firm, and the conversation was changed. You're tired of your life alone?" Stanley ventured a moment or two later. What do you say to our setting up housekeeping together again? I'm willing if you are." Judith shook her head solemnly. No," she said, sorrowfully, "I must see the wrong righted in other directions before I willingly choose to trust my happiness to the keeping of an unscru- pulous man. What about Mr. Aubrey Rice having been brought up on the charge of jforgery, Stanley ? I don't believe for a moment he was guilty." Then, pray, who was ? " said Pritchard, angrily. ''How can you know anything about t ? You were abroad at the time it happened." 288 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY "I know I was," replied Judith, "and that accounts for my not coming to you for an explanation earlier. I missed seeing the English papers at that time, and only by chance read about the trial six weeks ago in an old paper in which something had been wrapped up. I saw what you said in evidence and noticed your words went further to condemn him than any one else." **And what if they did? It was a mere chance that I happened to be in possession of facts about which others were ignorant. You did not expect me to hold my tongue .^^ I spoke in the interests of the Firm." I am not quite clear you did not speak in your own," said Judith, looking up very earnestly into his face, *'and that is what I have come home to England about. I could not rest for thinking that the ^500 you brought me had somehow something to do with that calamitous trial." " You can make your mind quite happy, Judith. I took your advice. and borrowed the money you wanted. Nothing was easier, and if it had been twice the sum I should have had no difficulty about getting it." I wish I could believe it," said Judith, seriously. Perhaps you will be able to do so after a good dinner. See, here we are at a famous place." "down on his luck" 289 " Then, if you will excuse me, I will leave you to order your own," the little lady remarked drily. After all, I have no appetite at this moment. Here are ten shillings to provide you with enough and to spare, not only for the present moment but for one or two days to come, I hope. There, good-bye, I must go now. It has taken me nearly a month to find you. Where can I write if anything unforeseen happens ? " Care of the man in the moon," said Stanley, with a little laugh. " That is the nearest address I can give you. I am here, there, and everywhere, according to the state of finances. Ta-ta ! " But," said Judith, still hesitating to take her dismissal without securing an address which would keep her in touch with Stanley, do you not think, while * your account at the bank ' is * overdrawn,' you would be glad to look for an occasional letter which might help you to get a dinner should you be requiring one ? " She put the question naively, and there was not an atom of irony in tone or manner. There's something in what you say," replied Stanley. Well then, you can at any time find me by addressing a letter to a certain tobacconist shop which stands half-way down a street leading off yonder," and he pointed in the direction, giving at the same time the name of the street. 'Pon my word, Judith, but if 290 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY you like to write me a sensible letter every week, I should be glad of it. I've been awfully wretched lately, what with one thing or another, though I don't just know why I'm going to tell you about it." I should start life afresh if I were you, Stanley," Judith said, with evident effort. " Make up your mind to do what you learnt as a child in your catechism — * to be true and just in all your dealings.' " Thank you, when I want a lecture of that sort I will come to you for it," interrupted Stanley, hotly. " I am as good as you any day, only my sins are all on the outside and yours are below the surface." A look of real pain came into Judith's face. Don't let us quarrel," she said, almost humbly. If we do now and again chance to meet, let it be in peace, Stanley. I am not setting myself up as a saint, but I have begun to see the error of my ways," and with that she was gone, leaving Stanley Pritchard gazing after her in astonishment. Poor Judith, what a good little wife she would have made a right sort of husband. It's a pity we never could quite hit it off," he mused as he turned into the eating-house near which they had been standing, and ordered a very economical dinner. Meanwhile Judith hastened into a passing omnibus on its way to Westminster. She "DOWN ON HIS luck" 291 longed for the quiet of the Abbey ; its dignified and holy silence soothed her chafed spirit. Daily since her return to England she had found her opportunity of spending a quiet hour within the sacred precincts, so much had happened of late to quell her haughty spirit and put her uncompromising behaviour to her husband, when first discovering he was other than she had been led to believe him to be, in its true light. Were not her sins of temper as wrong in God's sight as Stanley's apparently greater moral discrepancies ? Were there no points in his history, possibly associated with his antecedents, which made excuse for his weakness of character, while, in her case, did she not hold as her own a vigorous moral, as also physical, nature ? Could she find excuse for her own shortcomings through lack of home training or inherited foibles ? Stanley had more than once alluded to his father's drinking habits ; was there no connection between these and his own failures in life ? While thinking thus, Judith had found reason to bewail her readiness to let her husband drift from her, the troubles which eventually separated them being, she felt sure to-day, as much of her own making as of his, while with her rested the larger responsi- bility. True, she had been ruthlessly deceived ; but was it not Stanley's way to deceive ? He had not treated her other than he had treated the 292 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY world generally. She blamed herself for accept- ing his word so readily, when common sense urged the need of inquiry proportionate to the seriousness of the cause involved. These reflections had softened Judith's heart very much towards her husband, whom she had never ceased to love. On her way home from abroad, impelled by the desire to clear up her anguished doubts in connection with the forgery case, she had met with those who had for the first time in her life represented to her in human form (which she could scrutinise closely and without detraction) the religion of Christ. Few words were spoken directly upon the matter, but Judith received impressions which would never be obliterated ; indeed, which became all unconsciously woven into her own inner life. They were possibly the initial cause of her daily visits to the Abbey. Her heart hungered for something it did not possess. Her eyes were searching for the Light, glints of which had come to her in the lives of her fellow-travellers from abroad. It was many years afterwards that she first saw Tennyson's lines, which she claimed as representing exactly her own condition at the time of which we write — And what am I ? An infant crying in the night, An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry. CHAPTER XXVI EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS It was a dull November evening. The rain had been drizzling all day with the indefinite persistence which has been likened to the irri- tating nagging of a bad-tempered person whose outbursts of passion would be accounted infinite relief. The East End of London was looking miser- ably, hopelessly black and dirty, but it did not mean, as it might have done in a clean little market town for instance in the provinces, that streets were deserted, and business practically suspended until the morrow. Far from it ; the depressing state of the weather meant to that particular neighbourhood, seeking in the open street what the pitiless so-called home could not give, temporary deliverance from the sickening heat of just such a night indoors. You who live in well-built houses, let alone substantial mansions, where ceiling and floor have at least from twelve to fifteen feet between them, and ventilation, however imperfect, makes it easy to breathe without being conscious of the fact that you have to do so, you cannot form 293 294 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY any idea of the suffering of the ill-housed poor, those to whom the conditions of living come perilously near to a healthy mind's con- ception of that place, peopled by fallen angels, about which those who have been in the world half a century heard more in their childhood than they do to-day. Do the poor never get used to this state of things ? Yes, in a measure, and this is the pity of it. This is where the difficulty comes in of redeeming them from the physical and moral depression of their lives. They are accustomed to the polluted atmo- sphere which is so full of power to injure, and whereas, at one time they might have cried, For pity's sake, help us," it is quite possible to-day to change that cry with one of resentment of interference, Let us alone, what have we to do with thee ? " Oh, for public opinion to cry down the high rents and insanitary dwellings which hang a millstone round the necks of our struggling poor from the very day of their birth into this world ! It has too long, been left to the private conscience of individual landlords to regulate the price which the poor have to pay for the doubtful, to them, privilege of living. Surely the day has come when a civilised people, to say nothing of a Christian people, will insist that all have equal rights of breathing space, regardless of position or status. EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS 295 The world still scoffingly asks with Cain of old, **Am I my brother's keeper?" It is for Christian England to reply, *'No, not his keeper, but your brother's brother." Still, this is all by the way, and apology must be made for the digression which arose while explaining that a wet November night did not mean deserted streets in the locality in which we find Guy Manville, the future Lord Horrick, and his friend Hugh Watson who had driven from the West End in a private hansom as far as Stepney station, and who now found them- selves on foot making their way, as directed by a policeman, to the substantial temporary building in which Moody and Sankey were . holding their, by this time, far-famed evan- gelistic services. It does credit to your perseverance, if not to your taste, Manville," said Guy's companion, picking his way through the puddles as delicately as his patent-leather-clad feet would suggest was, under the circumstances, wise. Think of foregoing the opera for a ' show ' of this kind ; what would Lady Harriet say if she knew ? " My mother is good enough to think well of my wisdom wherever displayed," said Guy, laughing. She is not troubled with nervous fears about my chosen pastimes. It will be all one to her, if I amuse myself rationally, where- ever I go." 296 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Then you admit you came here to-night purely for amusement ? " No, not purely ; I think curiosity shares the honour of bringing me this way. I am so really interested to know what eight thousand empty chairs look like. The idea fascinates me. Of course one gets accustomed to the thought of hundreds, but think what thousands must be." Guy s companion laughed. " But, my dear fellow, how are you going to see them empty if there's a service going on ? Has your artistic mind grasped the fact that the great unwashed will be there in abundance ? This man Moody has a marvellous following, so the papers say. He is a born conjuror. He makes much out of nothing, and gets his audience to believe in him thoroughly." Perhaps," said Guy, " they will not flock in great numbers to-night. The weather does not certainly suggest comfort in a wooden building of huge dimensions. If we chance to find it full, we can but wait until the end and see it cleared. I mean to gratify my curiosity, and look at those eight thousand chairs." They were passing Stepney Church at the time, and it was striking eight, a fact which made the two friends quicken their steps. '*As well to be there when the curtain rises and see the full play," said Guy s friend, with a latent sneer in his tones. EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS 297 " Yes, just as well," was his companion's reply. Half a crown in the collection ought to pay the expense from the start. By the way, I wonder if we should have had tickets of admission ? " At that moment the flaring gaslights of the street stalls and the Buy, buy, buy " given with marked nasal intonation by the persistent salesmen, the glare of a near public-house packed to overflowing, the little crowd waiting its turn to pass in collected at the door, the dejected, slip-shod walk of bedraggled women and men wearing their characters in their faces — failed, missed the mark, what's the use of life to us ? " — the sight literally appalled Guy Manville, stereotyping itself for ever upon a mind prepared by natural sympathy and generous desire to alleviate trouble, to receive lasting impressions of this kind. " Like to take a flat and settle amongst these natives ? " asked Hugh, with an irrepres- sible sneer, as the two paused and gazed about them. Did you ever see more horrible products of drink and disaster ? Poor beggars, most of them doubtless born and bred to it." But Guy Manville was paying no attention to his friend's remark ; he had turned aside, addressed by a lady wearing the dress of deaconess or nurse, perhaps it was a little of both, for Dora Thatchet had simply adopted u 298 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY a dress for her East End ministrations which was as unlike as possible to the pretty- garb of fashion's choosing which she usually wore in the West End. She found it was a sure protection to be clothed in garments which gave her in a way a right to the name of sister," and even her stately aunt of Berkeley Square was quite happy in the child," as she called her favourite niece, " taking herself off to Stepney and the farther East thus attired. No one could be rude or ill-mannered to such an apparition." Dora was holding up some tickets to Guy. Will you accept a ticket for JVIr. Moody's meeting? Perhaps you are on your way there ? No admission without tickets for another half-hour," she said, glancing at her watch as she spoke. We are on our way," said Guy, very much struck with the simple and unaffected manners of the beautiful girl who was speaking to him. Curiosity brings us from the West End to spy out the land and see for ourselves what sort of a man this prophet is of whom the whole world of London raves to-day." And the empty chairs," said Hugh, giving Guy a friendly rap with the handle of his umbrella. The rain had cleared some few minutes previously, and the umbrellas had been closed. EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS 299 Yes," laughingly continued Guy, I own I have a curiosity to see 8000 chairs side by side in rows — empty, you know." Empty?" said Dora Thatchet, laughing; well, you must make haste and get a seat on the platform, and wait until the service closes. See, I have tickets for workers," and she dived eagerly into her little hand-bag and brought out tickets of another colour than those already offered. But we are not workers, and so not entitled to seats on the platform, I fear," said Guy, and there was a ring of sincere regret in his voice. Dora s face shadowed, but only for a moment. The next she smiled very brightly upon Guy, and she said, " I see you have yet to awake to your privileges. But Mr. Moody will tell you all about it. I owe so much to him, you must forgive my impulsiveness," she added, redden- ing ; I never knew what it was to be really happy until Mr. Moody taught me to read my Bible aright. Good night, I must hasten on with my tickets." She was moving away hurriedly when Guy said, But please give us our two wherever you think we may hope to find room and to hear well." I think you must go to the platform after all," she said, smiling through what seemed to be 300 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY some tear-filled eyes. "All the near seats in the body of the building will be taken. A few are always reserved on the platform for late- comers — -friends of workers,'' she added, almost playfully. If you do not mind taking my name with you as your passport, you will be admitted all right. Please say, * friends of Sister Dora,' " and with that she sped on her way, leaving Guy with two workers' tickets in his hand, and in his heart — a memory. It was only a few moments later when the two friends took their seats to Mr. Moody's left on the very spacious platform provided for the choir and workers. It was a little while before Guy realised that theirs was the choir side ,* indeed, that he and Hugh occupied two chairs in the seats left for the tenors. It was quite an accident, but, the two chairs being vacant, it was natural for the steward to take them to them. Two of Sankey's hymn books with music were on the chairs ; hence, being there^ it was also quite natural for the two young men to join in the hymns. Guy chanced to have a good tenor voice, but his friend was no musician, and was inclined to laugh to himself over the misfitting position he was called to occupy. Meanwhile Guy was moved immensely as he gazed down from the platform upon a sea of upturned faces. It appeared as if the but EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS 3OI dimly-lighted building was full from end to end. Great care had been taken to seat the people closely, crowds being always expected ; but as a matter of fact there were several seats still vacant at the back, chairs which would be quickly filled by the non-ticket-holders as soon as the time came to open the doors to them. The hymn which Moody was giving out when Guy and his friend reached the platform was one quite unfamiliar to the young men, but, by the eager way in which the people took up the chorus, evidently a favourite one with the audience. The choir sang the refrain in clear and beautifully harmonised voices — Weary wanderer, stop and listen, Happy news we bring to thee, Jesus has prepared a banquet, Come, and welcome thou shalt be. And the people took up the chorus with spirit — Make no longer vain excuses, Jesus calls and calls thee now ; Come, for everything is ready. Weary soul, why waitest thou? Never before had Guy listened to singing such as this. It was pre-eminently musical in spite of its homeliness. It was absolutely inspiring in the sudden swelling tide of appeal which the chorus suggested. V 302 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY As he sang out the last lines of the chorus, twice repeated at the closing verse, Weary soul, why waitest thou? something very like a mist came over his eyes as he murmured to himself as he took his seat, " Ah, why indeed!" The words had gone home, penetrating a reserved nature and a proud heart. Guy Manville, like many another high-born, cultured man in those stirring times of Moody and Sankey's visit to England, had to acknowledge before that evening was over that from the first hymn to the last words of benediction, that meeting had been to him as a voice from Heaven. Try as he would, he could not get away from the appeal which held him spell- bound from first to last. Mr. Sankey had sung mid- way in the service — Nothing but leaves, The spirit grieves Over a wasted life ; O'er sins indulged while conscience slept, O'er vows and promises unkept, And reaps from years of strife Nothing but leaves, nothing but leaves. To Guy as he sat there, every fibre of his being swayed by new feelings, new emotions, he thought it might have been written for his case, so exactly did it portray the measure he took there and then of his own life. EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS 303 As in a panorama he saw the past — child- hood, youth, manhood, home life, 'Varsity life, and life as lived to-day, bearing only the stamp of self. What had he ever done for others worth doing ? What had the Christ been to him personally, individually, more than a name, a name, too, chiefly associated with enforced attendance at church, with sermons pleasant only in their ending, with solemn (and these but rare) occasions of depression or active trouble ? Whereas — oh ! the possibilities which life held — real life, true, actual life, not the word, the sound, but the vitality itself. When Mr. Moody began to speak — the address in all could only have lasted some fifteen or twenty minutes — Guy was conscious of the same fascination. Bluff almost to brusqueness, rough, rugged, and uncultured, with an American accent and choice of language — I guess " and I reckon " — what was there in the preacher to claim affinity with the young aristocrat of noble birth and refined education, the Society man who an hour or two ago could count as his highest enjoyment a game of billiards with an opponent worth the fighting, or a champagne lunch with congenial friends ? In the man Moody himself nothing, nothing ; but in the messenger of God, be his name 304 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Moody or what not, whose spiritual being- was such an absolute reahty, such a divine force that it alone was felt, realised — much, very much. Guy sat and listened as one to whom God Himself was speaking. I am the Light of the World," thundered Moody, repeating again and again his text, '*Who said it? Christ. What right had He to say it ? Every right, because it is true, as every one may prove. Shut yourself up in a cellar on a blazing hot summer's day and shout till you're hoarse, ' There's no such thing as sunshine,' what difference would it make to the man who's out in the warmth and glow and light of the sun ? None what- ever. He's proved for himself what it is like. Why don't you prove — you, my friend there, you, you, what the Saviour meant every one to understand — that He is the Light of the World, the Light of Life? You've been long enough in the kingdom of darkness, I reckon, to tell pretty much what it's like. It's not suggestive of much peace or happiness or useful service for other folks now, is it? There's a lot of disappointment to be accounted for, a world of trouble and anguish, and, worse than all else, a conscious- ness that life's a failure, look at it which way you will. My dear friends, of course it is, and i EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS 305 It will get more and more so, only your senses may be dulled, and you won't always see it as you do to-day. Why do you loiter or linger when He calls you out of darkness? He, the Christ, God's own Beloved Son, calls you out of darkness into His marvellous light. Why? What to do? To live to yourself as you've been doing all these years ? No, my friend, leave that to those who serve the Prince of Darkness — that's his creed. Please yourself and be happy. Why, the very command holds a lie. No man is happy while pleasing himself is his life object. No, no ; our Lord Jesus Christ has something better in store for those He calls out of dark- ness into His marvellous light: it is, that they may show forth the Father s praises. A new heart, a new nature, a new life: — all belongs to the new venture. In His light we see light. We see sin atoned for by His precious sacrifice — death upon the cross ; sin forgiven because He bore our sins and suffered for our iniquities ; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. With His stripes we are healed. Jesus Christ is ours. What wonder that breathing a new life, with new instincts and ambitions, we long to show forth His praises ; and how do we do it ? The Bible tells us straight — show our love to God by our love to man. By love we serve one another. Oh, 306 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY how the praises are mounting up to-night of some hearts at this very moment, longing for the salvation of other dear ones! How they sound like beautiful bells of joy and thanks- giving in Heaven to-night, while one and another says, ' Lord, what wilt Thou have^me to do ? In the past I have lived for self, but to-night I give myself to Thee. Let me be a soul- winner.'" It was about two hours later when Mr. Moody took leave of a young man with whom he had had a somewhat lengthy interview in the inquiry room. Well, good-bye, God bless you and make you a blessing to others," said the evangelist,, taking the young man's hand in a warm grasp, and bringing up his left hand over the right with a prolonged shaking. They were the last to leave the inquiry room, workers and seekers after sympathy and help alike had gone. The building itself was- in semi-darkness. A steward, whose business it was to see all lights out, lingered in the distance. He knew Mr. Moody's special wish to be left alone with any who desired a word with him ; hence he put himself well beyond earshot. Do you know what brought me here to- night ? " said the young man, speaking in a. subdued voice, but with just that joyous. EIGHT THOUSAND EMPTY CHAIRS 307 intonation which proclaims some great anxiety- removed or delight recently appropriated. '*God Himself brought you here, young gentleman, to be converted to Him," answered Moody, bluntly. " True," was the reply, while a brilliant smile swept over the handsome features of the young man, "but He uses means as you were telling me just now, and His 'means* in my case was the desire to see eight thousand chairs set out in rows as I see them at this moment." Needless to say the young man who said this was Guy Manville. CHAPTER XXVII DOWN EASTWARDS Judith had met Stanley by appointment. They had not seen each other since meeting so un- expectedly, on Pritchard's part, the morning upon which he had given chase, as he believed, to Aubrey Rice, but they had corresponded, and Stanley had received weekly a postal order ''to keep the wolf from the door." A great many things had happened to which Judith had never alluded in her letters, but the time had come when she must explain certain matters to Stanley. They were simple enough in the main, but fraught with large issues. "You know," said Judith, as she and her husband paced the Victoria Embankment, having met outside the Guildhall School of Music, and there was a touch of the old playfulness in her tones, "other people cannot get through life without having their own lawyer; neither can I. I had to see mine last, I mean years ago, about a little piece of business which I hope you regret as much as I do to-day ; but three weeks ago I looked him up just to give him a friendly call, and my appearance caused quite a 308 DOWN EASTWARDS sensation. He thought of me as on the other side of the Atlantic, and there was a letter addressed to me and actually stamped, lying upon his desk ready for the post!" ''And you collared it there and then, and put the rescued stamps in your purse?" said Stanley, laughing. Judith s freshness was very inspiring; she came, as her letters always did, as a sort of breeze into his life, and whatever his mood for the moment he was the better. ''I am afraid I forgot all about the stamps," said Judith, laughing ; "my brain was quite turned for the moment by the news verbally given me, the news the letter was intended to con- vey. An old uncle of my father s, living away in Gloucestershire in the Forest of Dean, had died, leaving his great-niece, Judith, sole possessor of his property. We always thought him poor, very poor, but it turns out he had saved and hidden away about his cottage quite a little fortune. And now, Stanley, I have come to-day to ask you to let bygones be bygones. I want you to leave this great city in which you have had so many troubled times, and come down into the country. We will set aside our legal separation, which we have really annulled long ago, and start life afresh. I promise never to nag at you or remind you of other days; and if you agree to this plan, I mean to trust you once again and believe all you tell me, so you will have to be on your honour, sir!" 3IO THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY " Oh, Judith ! how could you be so — so merciful ? " exclaimed Stanley, his eyes filling with honest tears. "No, I'm a brute, and there's no saving me." " You are not a brute," said Judith, emphati- cally ; you are a man with a mind, and you are going to use that mind. Come, just say you agree to my plan, because I have heaps more to tell you, that is, if you mean to give me the pleasure of receiving you into my cottage as a guest who will early arrange to take up his residence there altogether." After this, Judith talked to her heart's content. Stanley looked pleased, though saying but little. It was barely ten days later when the two took possession of the pretty cottage in Mitcheldean. Judith had urged her husband to get into steady employment, although their property was quite enough to keep the two, if living quietly. It was not long before Stanley secured a local appointment as collector, and for a while things went on well ; but harvest festivities led to a broken pledge — for he had pledged his word to Judith to abstain from all intoxi- cating drinks as a beverage — and the drift downward set in from that hour. Judith met the downfall with hopeful pleading. Once she would have railed at him for folly and weak- DOWN EASTWARDS ness ; to-day she spoke only of renewed effort and of the perseverance which carries its own success. She had her reward ; Stanley made a fresh start ; he had lost his appointment, but was not long before finding another. Again a few months of comparative rest to Judith ; then disgrace which threatened ruin to her most sanguine hopes and plans. Stanley had embezzled some money of which as collector he was in charge, and had absconded. To take from her little capital and make good the default was only a work of time, brought about with as much expedition as could be planned. Then, not getting a word from Stanley, and taking for granted that London would be his hiding - ground, Judith let her cottage furnished, and set off in search of her missing husband. She took a humble lodging to be at as little expense as possible, and spent most of her days visiting spots which she had known her husband to frequent. Nor did she confine her search- ings to daylight. She found her way to the various music halls known to her so well by name, but into none of which had she ever entered. At these doors she stood scanning the faces of all who passed in or out. Once she thought to go within and gaze upon the crowd. With trembling hand she paid her entrance 312 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY money and entered. Dazzled by the light, bewildered by the music, at that moment un- usually brilliant, she stood transfixed, as in a lull a girlish voice sang a popular ditty, not too exalted in tone and character from the start, but coarsening at its close ; then, with burning cheek and quickened pulse, indignant at the insult offered in the song to all pure woman- hood, Judith turned and fled, never again to repeat the experiment. And all this while her great love for Stanley gave her hope and led her on to plan what should be the next thing done when he was found. They would travel, go round the world together, visit her mother, from whom she had carefully kept back her sad news. He would grow stronger with added years, until the wild oats sown in youth and reaped in matured manhood would be swept aside, leaving the after-life ready to be lived wisely and dis- creetly. But the months passed on and still she found no clue to Stanley s movements. Her lawyer had suggested, Why not give him up ? Return to your mother, and forget you ever knew the man," to which advice, with scalding tears shadowing her beautiful eyes, Judith had made quick reply, *'No, Mr. Ashley, as I read my wifely duties to-day (I own it was not always so), I can never relinquish my search DOWN EASTWARDS for Stanley Pritchard. Let me but find him and convince him by my ceaseless endeavour to trace him that my love is undying, and I may win him yet to a better hope and life!" ''Well, young lady, may you be rewarded, if not in this world, in the next," had been the lawyer's reply, much moved. Then the unexpected happened. Judith met the one at whose house she and Stanley had stayed at the Lakes when first married ; a motherly kind of woman, now on a visit to London, who in her way had both admired and pitied the bride who was so many years older than her husband. "She was far too good for him." "There was more love on her side than his,'' and so forth. "Why, my dear Mrs. Pritchard, can it be you?" she exclaimed, chancing to take a seat beside Judith in St. James' Park one morning. It was spring-time and some five months since Stanley had left home. "Why, it was but the other day I met your husband in the People's Palace, Mile End way, you know ? I asked after you, and I thought I understood him you were away abroad for a while with your mother." "How did he seem? What did he look like? Was he — about the same as when you first knew him?" Judith put the questions breathlessly. "Well, now you ask so plain, I'll not deny it gave me a bit of a turn to see how changed he X 314 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY was. He looked years older and — well, less careful about himself. It struck me his hair wanted cutting, and he would have done with a clean collar. There, my dear! I really must ask you to forgive me, but now you put it to me, it seems only right to speak out!" ''Poor fellow," said Judith, feelingly; "he has been worried a good deal lately, and he prefers being by himself just now. I am longing to see him, but must wait my time. Does he look ill?" '' Not a bit of it," said the good woman, who could see well enough through Judith's very transparent endeavour to shield her husband, but was scarcely cultured enough to hide her discovery ; one more degree of natural refine- ment and she might have accomplished it. *' He looked as if he enjoyed a good dinner every day, and I'm afraid by the appearance of his eyes he takes his drink pretty freely. There, my dear, if, as I suppose, he's not turned out a good bargain, take my advice and do not break your heart over him. If he throws his life away, don't you lose yours in fretting after him. He's not worth it." The Bible tells us we save our lives in losing them," said Judith, solemnly, but when speaking her eyes were on the ground at her feet. She was thinking aloud : I shall not lose mine if I can get my husband back again — I mean DOWN EASTWARDS away from this dreadful London. There is so much here to tempt a man to go off the straight path—" She stopped abruptly. No, not even to this comparative stranger could Judith prevaricate. Stanley had not started off the right road in this last breakdown in London. In the peaceful village, lying in the heart of some of the fairest scenery in England, Stanley had had set before him life and death — and he had chosen death. It is not the "without" of life's surroundings and circumstances which tempt a man to sin, but the within " of a heart prone to evil. The microbes of disease only germinate and create sickness where the physical frame of one approached connives at the conspiracy of evil ; what the healthy refuse the weakly appropriate. Hence the wisdom of the counsel. Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life." This accidental meeting in St. James' Park took Judith eastwards. Stanley would be living there, and frequenting the People's Palace for his recreation and his meals. And this departure from west to east brought Judith — later — in contact with Mr. Moody's meetings, of which mention has already been made. She attended the services night by night, searching there as everywhere else for Stanley, helped and strengthened for her 3l6 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY sorrowful life in ways which can never be fitly described, and only understood when personally realised. It was on one of these never-to-be-forgotten evenings that she first met Sister Dora, to whom later she told her sorrowful story. It was natural for Guy Manville, who by this time was a recognised convert of the mission, and one desiring to be a worker in the East End, to be taken into confidence, Sister Dora claiming his help in the search ; and it was also natural for these three, Judith and Sister Dora and Guy, having found each other under these circumstances, not to lose each other again. Long after Moody's visit had become only a memory with the world generally around Stepney, these three met twice at least weekly to compare notes and see what progress had been made. Judith was lodging in Bromley Street, near to Stepney Meeting House. She shared the sitting-room, in the house of a widow, with a lay missionary, a woman whose zeal and love for poor lost humanity made her a noted character in that part of the world. It was in this sitting-room that the three met, and Guy was not long in discovering that some- thing more than interest in Mrs. Pritchards search for her missing husband led him to welcome each opportunity of finding his way there as a Heaven-permitted joy. CHAPTER XXVIII AN INTERVIEW AT THE MANOR Squire Butler-Edgcombe lived a life of quiet usefulness, and in his way enjoyed himself. He devoted a good deal of time to politics, but more to philanthropy. The Rector was so con- vinced of his sanctified common sense that he was quite ready to make advances towards a personal friendship. But the Squire gave him no encouragement. The man who could deny his daughter her rights as such must, he argued, have a heart of stone. While he persisted in banishing Gertrude Rice from the Rectory, he need not expect to be tolerated as a guest at the Manor House. Hence the two remained strangers to each other and little more. The Squire's pleasure in those days was to hunt up any who could claim relationship, how- ever distant, with himself, easing off work to men well on in life by settling a small annuity upon them, helping forward some of a younger generation to whom the gift of a few hundred pounds at the right moment was better than thousands left to them at an inopportune season, 317 3l8 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Otherwise a time when powers and energies were on the wane and ambition itself was dying a natural death. With his lawyer the Squire had friendly intercourse from time to time. He had never regretted the bargain struck over the trial which was to secure to him, or lose, his property ; nor did he doubt but what the enterprising and energetic solicitor would succeed him when, in the providence of God, he was called to join his saintly wife and sister-in-law in Heaven. Hence it came to him as quite a shock one day to read in the Times of the death of the very man of whom he had so often thought as the one to take his place at Edgcombe Manor. He tried in many ways after this to cultivate the son, but it was almost a pain to him to do so, for Cyril Grant was a man as contrary to the Squire as it was possible to be. He was a man who aspired to be great, and in the very effort to become so established his own small- ness. Look at him which way he would, the Squire found cause to dislike him. He was a young upstart ! So said Mr. Butler- Edgcombe to himself, after going out of his way to become more friendly ; more was the pity that sooner or later he would be in power at Edgcombe Manor, and bring in force a reign of terror which would go far to undo any good which he might, under Providence, have managed to effect during the past few years. AN INTERVIEW AT THE MANOR 319 Still, the Squire was not a man to worry over prospective trouble. The only difference that he permitted to be established in his mind was an added care to make hay while the sun shone. Only those in possession of wealth know how much can be done with it when to the willing- ness to bestow is allied the determination to find out how best to act in the interests of the one benefited. It is one thing to sit down and write a cheque for a hundred pounds, and quite another matter to plan how best to spend that sum upon an individual without injuring self-respect or reducing the vital forces of self- help. Mr. Butler-Edgcombe had been in town, a visit to his tailor being earlier than anticipated in the season, as he had a deep-set plan upper- most in his mind just then of sending to the home of a poor clergyman, just such a man in build as himself, an anonymous gift, a perfect wardrobe of clothing *'only worn long enough to be aired." The Squire had chuckled to himself over the pleasure he was about to bring into a struggling life, of the mysterious guesses as to where the things had come from, and he was feeling so supremely happy at the moment of passing his young lawyer's town office (the country one had been given up), that he thought he would look in just for a friendly *'How d'ye do?" even if by 320 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY accident, as on a previous occasion, such a visit was booked for a six-and-eightpenny fee. *'Is Mr. Grant in, and disengaged?" the Squire said, cheerfully shaking hands with Drake, the confidential clerk, a genial habit he had wherever he went of bringing a little special brightness into business life. " Oh, haven't you heard, sir?" was the reply, spoken in awed tones. * * The poor young gentle- man was thrown from his horse in the hunting field yesterday morning, and was picked up dead. It is an awful blow to his widowed mother and young wife." And to me, too," said the Squire, to whom the news had brought a genuine shock. Why, he was my heir. Suppose you were in the secret ? " " Yes, sir ; he used to talk a great deal about it at times ; he built his hopes, I know, upon it, and quite looked forward to your — Excuse me, sir ; forgive my blunder ; we business men are too apt to make practical reflections." My death? Oh, do not apologise," said the Squire. " I daresay I should have put it that way myself if the case had been reversed. How are these widows left? There will be two of them to think about now." Well, sir, not so well off but they might be better," said the confidential clerk, feelingly. The Squire was not quite sure how far his AN INTERVIEW AT THE MANOR 32 1 Statement was to be relied upon ; but on his return home he drew out two cheques for a thousand pounds each, and one for one hundred pounds, and the hearts of the two widows and one confidential clerk were, a day or two later, considerably gladdened in consequence. Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Squire thought incessantly during church time of a poor innocent man serving his time in a convict prison, who to-day was heir to a large property which in years to come would, he trusted, help him to find some consolation in life for all the troubles he had passed through. Strange how it altered everything ; but from the time of hearing of the young lawyer's death the Squire found an added pleasure in life. Aubrey Rice would follow him. As soon as his time was up, owing to that dastardly intrigue by which he, one of the noblest of men, had been called to suffer — the innocent instead of the guilty — he would send for him to the Manor House, and get him to stay with him from time to time, if not altogether, that he might get familiar with his methods of work. His dear wife — oh ! how grieved he was to have lost sight of her, but he had never been able to trace her address — she would share his pleasures. Well, three years of the seven had gone ; the other four would soon pass. In all these calculations the Rector, who would indirectly be interested in the matter, was entirely ignored. 32 2 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Then, as he dwelt upon this all-absorbing subject, the Squire bethought him of a plan ; he would write to the governor of the convict prison and get him to let him pay Aubrey a visit. It would cheer his last miserable years there to know how matters stood. But the Squire had to bear a great disappointment. In answer to his letter to the prison, he received the information that during the August following his advent into prison, the previous October, No. 75 (Aubrey Rice) had managed to effect an escape, and despite every inquiry and most searching effort on the part of the police, nothing had been heard of him since. His conduct during his residence in prison had been most exemplary. His escape caused consider- able conjecture at the time as to the motive inducing him to run the risk to life and limb which the drop of thirty feet entailed — (his way of escape had been easily determined) — and so forth. " Ton my word, what complications," said the Squire ; " and there seems nothing to be done." Then, after deep and grave consideration upon the question, he thought one thing might at least be attempted ; he would write to Guy Manville, Aubreys best man at his wedding, and get him to come to the Manor House, and they could talk over some plan for unearthing the man in hiding. AN INTERVIEW AT THE MANOR 323 '*The miserable part of it all is," said Guy, when in due course he arrived and matters were well talked over, ''that if we find poor Rice, it would only be to have the police down upon him while this dreadful forgery sentence hangs over his head." " True," admitted the Squire, "but for myself I should have no compunction in sheltering Aubrey Rice from any legal action. I am so convinced in my own mind of the poor fellow's innocence that, magistrate that I am — and I hope one strong enough to minister the law where it is needed — I would not lift up a little finger to bring that poor fellow to justice. Keep your eyes open in your East End visit- ing, Mr. Manville ; you may come across him in some out-of-the-way-place ! " "Do you really think so?" exclaimed Guy, joyfully. " I won't forget what you say. Poor Aubrey ! Poor Mrs. Rice ! I never knew a sadder case ! " " I did," said the Squire, quietly. " Whose was it ? " asked Guy. " I can give no names," said the Squire, "but it's the man who actually committed the forgery and then contrived to put the blame on some one else. That man's life must be hell to him, whereas Aubrey Rice's conscience will acquit him of any wrong-doing. God bless him ! Mark my word, his innocence will be estab- lished yet ! " CHAPTER XXIX WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE ? Guy Manville was away for two months that summer travelling on the Continent with his people, and as happy fortune would have it, meeting when mid-way in his holiday with Sister Dora, her father and mother, and the aunt from Berkeley Square. The families lost no time- in becoming intimate, and by a little readjustment of plans, mutually conceded, they kept together until their return to England early in September, by which time it was an open secret that Dora Thatchet and the future Lord Horrick were more to each other than friends. Judith's quick eye caught the announcement of the engagement in an evening paper which she was carefully scanning, hoping to find mention of her missing husband. Even should such mention chance to be an item of police news, Judith would have felt relieved, especially if it meant a few days' detention in prison, giving her an opportunity of being within reach when the release came. For the more she thought of Stanley's conduct since what she 324 WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE ? 325 called the second volume of her married life had been opened and read, the more she was oppressed by the thoughts that he, not Aubrey Rice, had been guilty of forgery. And so terrible at times was this conviction that even her desire to find her lost husband became, in the very hope of its realisation, an anguish lest she should be running to earth a guilty man. Would her heart fail her in such a case, causing her to shelter the guilty while leaving the innocent to suffer ? Once she broke away from her search, completely overborne by the conviction that nothing would lead her to betray her husband, even if he made full confession to her of his crime. She went down to Michael- dean, ostensibly to look after her property there, but in reality to get rested and find restored balance for mind and nerves. It was while there that she saw the announcement of the engagement referred to, and feeling morally convinced that neither Miss Thatchet nor Mr. Manville would devote as much time in the future as in the past to their work in the East End, she felt constrained to return at once and continue the search. But her fortnight in the country had worked wonders. For the first few days she had slept incessantly, waking up only for her food; her homely landlady, knowing she had come down for the purpose of rest, did her best to contribute to it. The remainder of her 326 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY so-called holiday she had spent chiefly in the open air, often in the harvest field, sometimes, towards evening, in long lonely walks in the forest. Once she had been startled by an apparition. A half-clothed man had rushed out upon her from the trees, dancing round her as he waved his arms, talking the while hurriedly and inco- herently, the summing-up of his intelligible words , being, "Yes, yes; no, no." It was only a moment, and men in pursuit had surrounded the poor lunatic and taken him away. She learnt afterwards that a devoted wife had sought to care for her mentally afflicted husband (his illness coming on by degrees) without allowing his removal to an asylum, with the result that in a short absence from the cottage on her part, he had made his escape, frightening one woman into a fit and actually inflicting bodily injury upon three or four children who, terror-struck, had got in his way. It was strange how this incident, by a sequence of thought, led Judith to the con- clusion that to attempt to protect her husband from the law, should he ever confess to her that his hand, not Aubrey Rice's, was responsible for the forged cheques, would be to tamper with the life happiness of the many while selfishly aiming to secure her own. She determined to strengthen her resolve for WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE ? 327 definite action should the time ever come when it would be needed, by telling Mr. Manville and Sister Dora the story of her early married life. The incident of the ;^500 would be given naturally, and her dread lest it had not been rightly come by could be told ; she would take to herself all the blame ; indeed, but for her own contrition in having pressed for this money, the story might pass out of memory. Judith thought thus to prepare the minds of her friends for any future development of a discovery which in some way she believed possible, if not probable, as associated with the finding of her husband. She had at various times already referred to her unfortunate marriage, and her subsequent going abroad with her mother, giving to her later deep religious convictions the desire to give herself utterly to the salvation of her husband. But before she had an opportunity of carrying this determination into effect as it concerned fuller detail and reference to the ;^5oo, some- thing happened. It was late in October. Sister Dora and Mr. Manville were back at their work in the East End ; they spent much of their time as before in visiting the lodging- houses with which the neighbourhood of Ratcliffe Highway abounds. Judith had found her own special work in visiting the crippled and aged in the streets and courts teeming with 328 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY human life on the Mile End side of Stepney Green. To her the People's Palace was in a sense a landmark, a centre point towards which all her thoughts gravitated. Sister Dora was very popular in the lodging- houses chiefly, but not exclusively, occupied by women. Guy Manville was accounted ''a fel- low who meant no harm " in those absolutely given up to ''men only." One evening, having walked down to their scene of labour together, and arranging to meet at a given hour at Medland Hall — a mission station just at that time beginning to be known — Guy and his fiancee parted for their respective duties — Dora to find her way into the lodging- house kitchens (where she was always sure of a welcome) to sing hymns to the poor, miserable- looking creatures there, in her sweet soprano voice, which won its way into all hearts, talking between whiles in homely fashion of God's gifts to everybody — air and light, His sunshine and flowers, the love evinced. His desire to be the home of our spirits, and His tender pity for the sad and unfortunate. ''He willeth not that any should perish," Sister Dora would say, pathetically, "so, dear women, cheer up, hope for better days, and when the right thing to be done faces you, do it." " Ain't it beautiful ? " one old dame had said on one such occasion, shambling out of her seat WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE ? 329 as she spoke and sidling up to Sister Dora. " My dear," she added, with trembling voice, I used to know all about those things once. I was a buxom lassie then. My father was parish clerk and gravedigger in a country village ; and I wore nice clothes and went to church as regular as Sunday came along ; and I could look the gentry in the face and know my soul was as much to God above as theirs. I had no secrets in those days. But — ah ! well, it's the old story. The Squire's son came along our way once too often, and. . . . poor fellow, how was he to know what ruin and desolation lay for me beyond the lovely garden of romance in which he bid me walk . . . Yes, it's a goodish bit ago — say fifty years and odd ; but your sweet words are like the smell of new-mown hay to me, and country posies gathered in May-time ; and it takes my thoughts back to those days of innocence. Do you think he would have protected my innocence could he see me now and know what the years between have brought ? / don't. Man's a short-sighted creature at his best. Ah ! ah ! and his memory is made to match ! " And the old woman shook her hand in the air and stumbled back to her seat, mumbling. (It will interest the reader to know that this poor creature eventually became an inmate, thanks to Dora Thatchet's influence, of one of Y 330 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Squire Butler- Edgcombes alms houses, and ended her days amid the fragrance of country flowers and that peace which is the Father s gift to the penitent.) Guy's steps that night had taken him to a men's lodging-house where three hundred and forty-five beds were licensed to exist. It was only in the evening that the men were to be seen, and then the general kitchen literally swarmed with human beings. Many had re- turned from an honest day's work ixi the Docks, others had sauntered in from dishonest idleness, preferring **to get along somehow " — as helped by the generosity of the more industrious, notably their lodging-house "pals" so ready to share a meal with the poor wretch who had none — to making the effort to stick to employ- ment, even if found for the m. Added to these were a few chronics," men upon whom death had already set its mark, con- sumptives for the most part who subsisted chiefly upon the odd shillings and pence (for- warded to them week by week through the post by relatives glad to be rid of them, or friends who had known them in better days) and the occasionally-shared meal of a fellow-lodger. Guy was watching one of these that night, younger by some years than the others, and with a face which struck him as familiar. Where had he seen it before? Surely not at WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE ? 33 I one of the other lodging-houses? There were associations with that face that were painful. But what were they? Would memory recall them? The one in question noticed he was under observation, and shifted his seat back, directing his attention very closely to a letter he took from his pocket. Guy moved so as to be nearer, and in so doing it was quite impossible not to see the handwriting of the letter, with the contents of which the poor fellow was so apparently absorbed. The handwriting was surely Judith's. Guy had seen hers more than once, as letters had passed between Mrs. S. Pritchard and Dora Thatchet. It was unusually large and sprawl- ing, a great contradiction to the compact little figure of the writer. Then it dawned upon him that this would be the long-lost husband for whom they had made such vigorous search for the last ten months. Still, that fact did not explain why his face seemed so familiar. He had never seen a portrait of him ; and the wife's descriptions, though vivid up to a point, did not actually give the tout ensemble which struck him at the moment. Where have I met you before ?" said Guy, sitting down beside the man whose identity was at that moment such a puzzle to him. If I mistake not, you know me ? " 332 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY "You were in the court when I gave evidence in a forgery case about four years ago ; you were sitting near the judge. I remember your face well," was the reply, but even as he spoke the rapid breathing of the consumptive heralded in a fit of coughing which completely exhausted the sufferer. When he had somewhat recovered, Guy drew him aside to the lower end of the kitchen where a number of men were quietly sitting, some reading their newspapers, while sets of two and three were playing draughts and dominoes. It was much quieter here, and talking could go on undisturbed. ''Oh, yes," said Guy, making a broad venture, "you are Stanley Pritchard; I remem- ber now. I was wondering where I had seen your face before." As a matter of fact, Guy had no distinct memory of the names of those who witnessed for the prosecution; it was Judith's letter which supplied the clue upon which he based this venture. " I am known as Simon Perkins here," said the man, in lowered tones. " When a fellow's down on his luck, as I am," he continued, " it's only natural to wish to hide your identity." "How comes it you are in — such different circumstances from those you were in the day I saw you?" inquired Guy. By a strong effort he kept back all display of pleasure or satisfac- tion which this conversation was bringing him. WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE ? 333 " An extravagant wife ; a perfect little wretch, with her giddy, drinking ways ! " exclaimed Stanley, lifting his eyes as if in mute horror. " And she died, I suppose ? " said Guy, wondering if this wife could have been one prior to the advent of the Judith Pritchard he knew. " Not a bit of it ; she's living, sure enough," said Stanley, with a sneer; "these kind of wives always do live on ; it would be better for some of us if they didntr Guy thought of Judith, and groaned inwardly. Was this the man she was giving her life to save ? Where is she now ? " said Guy, a certain display of sympathy in his tones. For even an imaginary evil to those gifted with imagina- tion is quick to excite responsive feeling. " Goodness knows," said Stanley. She went off to America with some one just about the time I was giving witness at that trial. She got tired of that, and turned up again in England. I met her by chance in Drury Lane one morning, and she hadn't the good grace to get out of my way, but actually dared to address me just the same as if things hadn't happened. These are the women that would ruin any man. I lost my employment through her ; and not the first time either. I was 334 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY refused a reference because I ventured to question my employer's justice in dismissing me, and — " Let me see ; you were at Catchpool Brothers, I think?" said Guy, fixing his eye upon Stanley. **Yes, I was there once; that's how I came to know that rascal Aubrey Rice." Guy jumped up from his seat. Up to this moment it had never entered his head to associate the crime of which he knew some unknown person had been guilty, leading to an innocent man's conviction, with the witness who at the trial had given such damnatory evidence. Now it came to him as a sudden revelation, Aubrey Rice was suffering the penalty of Stanley Pritchard's wrongdoing. Perhaps he could never have arrived so promptly at this conclusion but for Pritchard's disgraceful fabri- cations about his wife, for Guy was familiar with the outlined history of her married life and of her sojourn abroad with her mother, whom she had left with relatives when returning to England. *^Now, look here, Pritchard or Perkins, or by whatever name you choose to call yourself. I want to ask your candid opinion about that forgery ; you don't believe in your heart that Aubrey Rice committed it?" "I know he didn't," replied Stanley, bluntly, quite thrown off his guard. WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE ? 335 **And this in the face of your evidence that day?" said Guy, still keeping his eye fixed upon him. **I was mistaken, deluded I might say; but I had my suspicions some while after, and I've since pretty well confirmed them ; indeed, I may say I'm sure I have." And you have let things go on and never gone to a magistrate and asked him to see to the release of an innocent man ? " said Guy, speaking in tones which sounded almost fierce in their wrath. " Here, let us come out if we must talk private affairs," said Stanley, uncomfortably; he had noticed a man listening to the conversa- tion, who at that moment edged up a little nearer to them, though still purporting to be reading a book ; and so saying he made for the door. As he got out into the open air his cough again became troublesome, and Guy realised for the first time what a wreck the poor fellow was. His face was the best part of him ; his hands were without flesh, and his limbs generally long and thin, added to which his figure, about which his clothes hung loosely, had the stoop of the consumptive. He looked a man prematurely old. As he stood coughing in the street, Guy was roused to wonder if it would not be best there and then to take him to the Poplar Sick Asylum. 33^ THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY He was in the habit of getting men in, and knew how to proceed, but he was loth to let him out of his sight until he had gained from him all the information he could. At whatever cost, Aubrey Rice must be cleared. Then Guy hit upon a bold expedient. He knew this was a chance not to be lost. He would take him off to Bromley Street. The lay missionary worker would give up her sitting- room to them. Judith Pritchard would be out ; she seldom reached home before ten, staying always to watch the men leave the People s Palace. "If you will come with me I can borrow a friend's room, and we can have our little talk together undisturbed. Here, youngster," he continued, speaking to a street Arab, a lad of 13 or 14, ''run as fast as you can to the nearest cab stand, and fetch me a hansom ; you can drive back in it, and I'll give you sixpence, and tell cabby he may expect a double fare for the honour of carrying you. We shall walk on towards Stepney Station, taking first turning to our left." Right you are, sir," exclaimed the lad, dis- appearing in the darkness of the ill-lighted street, and returning in an inconceivably short time sitting on the floor of the cab, his legs accommodating themselves to the very limited space. WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE? 2)2)7 " Picked him up on the way, sir," said the boy before Guy could put the question, How comes it you are back so soon ? " Then he added, grinning from ear to ear, Half-price to cabby, sir, seeing as how he wouldn't give me a decent seat on the velvet cushions!" Helping Stanley into the hansom, Guy put sixpence into the lad's hand, taking leave of him with a word of praise for his quickness, gave the coachman the number to which to drive in Bromley Street, and leant back in silence, thinking it a pity to continue the very interesting conversation until the house was reached and freedom from interruption could be secured, I should think you could do with a great- coat these cold nights," Guy said, looking compassionately at his companion. '4 had to part with mine a few weeks back," was the reply. I sold it to the Deputy; he's an awful nice chap, not at all hard on one about payments. Of course he knows an honest man when he sees him!" *'Of course," said Guy, and he wondered how long Stanley Pritchard would have the audacity to pose as such after they had had their inter- view together. Ten minutes later and Guy and Stanley sat face to face in Judith's sitting-room. The former had begged a cup of cocoa for his sick 338 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY friend, and, following the lay missionary into the back sitting-room, he had asked her if she would be good enough to meet Miss Thatchet at Medland Hall at nine and see her safely to him? **Tell her she can come in on arriving here ; she will be as much interested in the case as I am." And upon this Guy returned to the room in which he had left Stanley. The cocoa quickly followed, being eagerly taken by the one for whom it was intended. And now tell me," Guy said, as he took his seat opposite to his visitor, '* how came you to suspect Aubrey Rice to be innocent and not at once state the case to a magistrate ? " Oh, well, I don't say I was ready to swear it in a court of justice. It might, after all, you see, only be a mistake, like it was in the first instance. But of one thing I am quite sure, Aubrey Rice never did commit forgery ; and if it's my dying breath, I'd like to repeat it to clear his name. He deserves it." " Still, if it's only surmise on your part, what is the use of stirring up the matter?" said Guy, speaking cautiously. The cough interrupted the reply ; how much of it was forced was open to question. Come," said Guy, gently, "seeing you are, I fear, a dying man, why not clear your mind and speak out plainly what you really mean ? You have admitted that some one other than WHERE HAD HE MET HIM BEFORE? 339 Aubrey Rice signed those cheques. Why not go a step further and say who it was ? " He's dead, the man I'm thinking of," said Stanley, looking at Guy Manville for a moment, then turning suddenly away. What was his name ? " asked Guy, and he tried to keep out of his voice the irritation he felt. This patience-trying interview might drag- on for hours in this way. I tell you Tm not prepared to give it," said Stanley Pritchard, doggedly. I don't see why you should take up a chance remark of mine like you have done, and worry me with ques- tions I never intend answering. I'll go home, and don't you interfere with me again ! " and he rose from his chair angrily. This was too terrible. Guy moved quickly, and, planting his back to the door, said, I shall not let you go until you have given me a connected history of this painful case. Remember, I was at the trial, and am prepared to say my poor friend, Aubrey Rice, was con- demned upon your evidence." Your friend? Do you know him, really know him ? " said Stanley, suddenly growing excited. Oh, poor fellow, but I'm awfully sorry I helped to land him in trouble. I never should have done it but for that fiend of a wife of mine. She worked on me for monies which — which I could not find, and — " 340 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ''And what?" said Guy, severely, almost fiercely. This was a man who evidently had to be kept up to his duty ; fitful, vacillating, changeable, he blew hot and cold in a moment, and a resolution made this minute was broken the next. How hopeless to get any satisfac- tory statements from him ! Just then Guy heard the latch-key opening the street door. He looked at his watch. It was barely nine o'clock. It could not be the lay-missionary and Dora. There was only one other it could be. The return of Judith Pritchard at this hour was the last thing he should have thought about. It had never entered into his calculations. For the moment he was in great agitation. How could he leave Pritchard even for a second? In his present mood might he not do all sorts of desperate things ? How could his wife bear the shock of seeing him, without a word of warning, ensconsed in her own arm-chair and occupying her sitting-room ? Even while questioning himself, there was some one trying to enter the room. He moved away from the door so as to make it possible to open it, and, in so doing, made way for Judith Pritchard to pass in. CHAPTER XXX STANLEY PRITCHARD's CONFESSION I BEG your pardon, Mr. Manville ; I thought to find Miss M'Gregor here." Mrs. Pritchard had withdrawn the moment she perceived Guy to be occupied with a visitor, and when she spoke she was standing just out- side the door. Please, come in," said Guy Manville, earnestly, by some strange impulse led to do what he thought must bring matters to a climax, quite regardless of the after consequences. " This fellow here knew my friend Aubrey Rice ; he goes by the name of Simon Perkins, but his own people call him, I expect, Stanley Pritchard ; he says he had a bad wife, a regular fiend, so he tells me." Guy spoke thus to show his visitor up in his true light before his wife, when recognising him, could make any affectionate advances. By this time she had stepped into the room, and her glance was fixed upon the one spoken of I think he is only joking with you, Mr. Manville," she said, quietly. Her breath came quickly, and her chest was heaving, otherwise 341 342 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY she maintained a perfectly calm exterior. He had started at the sound of her voice, looking up with dismay and awe, then relapsing into his previous attitude. Speak to him, Mrs. Pritchard," said Guy, already greatly relieved to find she was equal to the occasion. Some women, he knew, would have fainted or gone off into hysterics. And Judith advanced still further into the room. ''How are you, Stanley?" she said, putting out her hand, which, however, he did not attempt to take. '* Poor dear," she continued, sympathetically, '* but you do look ill ! Oh, why did you stay away so long ? Why did you not come home to be nursed ? " ''Judith," said Stanley, looking up with a furtive glance, "I've been telling a lot of lies to this gentleman about you. You'll hate me when you hear the cruel things I've said — not a grain of truth in them. Say you despise me, as you used to do in the old days before our legal separation ! " " But you forget the new days," said Judith, going nearer and putting her hand on Stanley's bowed head, " when I confessed my own share of the troubled past, and asked you to forgive and forget ? Don't you remember, Stanley, everything had grown to be so different to me because — because — " STANLEY PRITCHARD's CONFESSION 343 Judith's voice grew very agitated here, but after a moment's pause she went on. Because I had become a disciple of Christ's, and He gave me love for hate, and patience and hope in place of despising and scorn. Stanley, you remember how we started life again at Michaeldean, and how happy we were until — " " Until I got drunk — out with it, Judith," said Stanley, bending his forehead on his hands, and so throwing his face in complete shadow. Oh, I mean long after that, dear ; that was forgiven and forgotten and you made another start, and we were so happy — " " Until I bolted with the money," interrupted Stanley. Then, lifting himself up, he said ex- citedly, *'Tell me, Judith, are the police after me ? Two hundred pounds is enough to give a man a fair taste of penal service ! " Oh, that was all settled just as soon as I could get my money free," exclaimed Judith, brightly. " I paid every penny of it before you had been away three weeks, and then I came to London to seek you, and I have sought and sought ever since, and still my love is not tired out ; and now, dear, God has brought you to me, and in my heart I thank Him. But, Stanley dear, I have a question to ask you which has been burning in my mind for months and months. You are the only person in the 344 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY whole wide world who can tell me. Is not Mr. Aubrey Rice innocent of the charge of forgery- brought against him five long years ago ? Speak, Stanley," she urged, as no answer came ; then, stooping down so as to look into the face of the man she addressed, she saw it was wet with tears. Yes, Judith, Rice is innocent, worse luck for the guilty," Stanley Pritchard said at length. Name the guilty man, Stanley ! " she con- tinued in the same measured and authoritative tones. Remember," she added, **to know this I came to England years ago. I had my suspicions then ; they have been strengthened since. Will you name the forger, or shall I ? " As you seem to know all about it, you had better tell this gentleman here, Mr. Rice's friend, the whole story," Stanley said, doggedly. " You mean," continued Judith, about my mother s freehold which you sold for her benefit you said, but you gambled away the money and so robbed her of all ? " Stanley nodded his head in assent. Then we were very unhappy, and we were always quarrelling, and we got a legal separ- ation on the ground of incompatibility of temper. Are you thinking of that ? " Go on ; tell it all while you're about it," Stanley said, this time burying his face in his hands. STANLEY PRITCHARd's CONFESSION 345 You went your way, and I mine," continued Judith. My way took me to Guildford Street, Bloomsbury, with my mother, where we heard of you in various ways, and — and usually the hearing was full of sadness and pain." "You didn't care a bit, Judith; you know you didn't," Stanley exclaimed, but his voice sounded muffled and hoarse. I cared a good deal, for I loved you all the while devotedly," replied Judith, and for the first time her voice trembled with emotion. Then she sighed, and continued — You allowed me a pound a week, which came through my lawyer. I sent for you one July and made you an offer. Your payments should cease, and I would never ask you again to contribute to my support if you repaid my mother the money which was hers, namely, four hundred and seventy-five pounds, bringing the sum up in round figures to five hundred pounds. I sug- gested for you to insure your life and borrow this sum, paying back the one pound weekly to the source from which you drew the sum I asked. You agreed to this, and late in Sep- tember you brought me two hundred and thirty pounds in gold, and early in October two hundred and sixty-five pounds in gold, the five pound slacking of the five hundred pounds you said it had cost you in expenses. Is that z 34^ THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY correct ? And isn't that the exact sum of those two forged cheques ? " Stanley nodded his head. My mother and I left Southampton on the 4th of October ; you saw us off ; we parted friends. I wrote twice from America, but received no answer to my letters. Then I chanced, quite two years afterwards, in unwrap- ping a parcel which had followed us from England the Christmas of our going out, and been put aside (the newspaper at least, with one or two things contained in the parcel, had been put away) — I chanced to read the forgery case, and saw with terrible anguish of spirit that, chiefly upon the evidence of one Stanley Pritchard, one, whose name I had never heard before, Mr. Aubrey Rice, had been sent to penal servitude for seven years ! I lost no time in coming to England to find you, and heard from your own lips that — that you were not mixed up in the wrong done. I expected to find you at Catchpool Brothers ; you had been dismissed (I heard this from the senior partner of the Firm) for irregularities he would prefer not to go into. But after endless days, devoted to fruitless search, I found you, met you in Drury Lane, put the question to you, and you assured me every penny of the money brought to me had been honourably borrowed — is that not all true to fact STANLEY PRITCHARD's CONFESSION 347 ''Quite true; go on," said Stanley, glancing up at that moment to note that Guy Manville was still where he had stood when Judith entered. Now, listen carefully, Stanley," said Judith, impressively. " What you told me as we walked from Drury Lane to the Strand was — a hideous lie. Confess, now, it was your hand, not Mr. Aubrey Rice's, which signed those cheques ! It was you, Stanley, wAo committed forgery for which an innocent man was made to suffer ! " As Judith paused, her husband lifted his face from his hands. The flickering light of the little lamp standing on the table near played about his ashen brow, upon which huge beads of perspiration gathered. His bloodshot eyes glanced up with piteous pleading into the face of the little woman, who had told her story from beginning to end in a voice subdued and tender, with deep feeling. His lips trembled visibly. He tried to frame some words, but for fully two minutes no sound came. Then all at once, and so loud as to be most startling, Stanley said — It's true, all true. I forged those cheques, and made the strokes in Rice's blotting case which brought the dastardly deed home to him- self." Then, continuing hurriedly in lowered tones, he said, I managed the little job very 348 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY comfortably, borrowing his latch-key, and, as I thought, taking the time when his old mother was up to her mad tricks at the station, and the old servant doing her marketing ; but, worse luck, the old mother was not out, it seemed, for when I was busy with my dastardly work, she gave me a fright by opening the door between Rice s room and hers, and looking at me in terror. She told me to *go away/ and threw a brush she had held in her hand at me. It gave me the blues afterwards to think she had gone suddenly sane, and would recognise me, so I went to the station where she waited for the trains, and passed her on the platform, and she stared hard, but nothing came of it. So there now, you've got the whole story. I sup- pose ril get my seven years or more for this night s work, but I'm ready ; it's been torture to hold the secret, and poor Rice's ghost haunts me ! " and as if the effort of making this confes- sion had exhausted every bit of strength which he possessed, Stanley glided from his chair on to the ground in a dead swoon. Judith bent over him, her tears falling thickly upon the unconscious form. As she slipped her arm beneath his head, she looked up into Guy s face. " Lose no time, Mr. Manville ; you must get a lawyer here. What my poor husband has just confessed must be taken down. You will find one in Albert Square. Go, please ! " STANLEY PRITCHARd's CONFESSION 349 And Guy went at once, like one in a dream. He met Dora Thatchet coming home, having been detained, under the lay-missionary's care, and claimed her to go with him in search of a lawyer. So much has happened, darling," he said, tenderly, as he placed her hand within his arm, I feel I must tell you all before you see Mrs. Pritchard again. Oh, Dora, Aubrey Rice's innocence is about to be established. To- morrow we will set the various agencies to work, and advertise right and left for the poor fellow. And to think that our little friend, Judith Pritchard, has formed the missing link in this story." Meanwhile Stanley had recovered conscious- ness, and to his confession added details which were of the most painful interest to Judith. His godfather had been a myth. The cheques which he had shown her to support his cruel falsehood were in connection with payments made to him in reference to gambling. He had at times been strangely fortunate, but, losing heavily about the time of his dismissal from Catchpool Brothers, he had fled, owing money to several. He had gone to the senior partner s private house when in a condition of intoxi- cation, behaving in a way which had promptly severed his connection with the Firm. Oh ! my poor Judith," he said, as he laid his 350 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY head on her shoulder and sobbed, 'the way of transgressors is hard.' I learnt that text when I was a boy, and I've never forgotten it — never forgotten it. I'm not the only fool who has thrown away his life, and the worse part of it all is, I'm not even decently sorry for having done so." CHAPTER XXXI NEWS FOR THE RECTOR The Squire was surprised by a telegram from Guy Manville — Important news, coming down by evening express." " Delightful," he exclaimed, in his pleasure, addressing himself to the servant who, having brought the telegram, was waiting to see if there were any reply. ''No, Jinks, no answer required; but send Mrs. Perks up to me ; we must give Mr. Manville a warm welcome." And the servant disappeared with a smiling face. The genial Squire had a way of his own in creating constant sunshine, lighting up common- place humdrum lives until they in their turn shed pleasant brightness around them, never quite understanding how it chanced to happen that such mere nothings as a smile here or a word of praise there somehow put every one in such a good temper. The world is certainly the gainer by the presence of such men as Squire Butler- Edg- combe in the universe. If he had one gift 351 352 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY more than another, it was ennobling and beau- tifying the commonplace. Asked once for his definition of tact, his reply had been — Well, my idea of tact is dotting life's ' is,' crossing life's 't's,' and putting its full stops in the right place." Only a man in the possession of an abundance of tact could have given such a definition. The marvel was how the Squire kept so uniformly cheerful and happy living as he did, since his wife's death, alone. Possibly the fact of his usually solitary existence gave great zest to the anticipated pleasure of a visit from Guy Manville. All that day the good man upon whose brow but few years had perceptibly gathered since we first made his acquaintance, looked forward with the eagerness of a child for the evening hour which was to bring him his visitor, and when Guy Manville was actually in the house the Master of the Manor became "as merrie as a cricket." Guy waited for the butler to withdraw after dinner before plunging into the subject upper- most in his mind. He had come, in pre- ference to writing, to tell the Squire of the find- ing of Stanley Pritchard and of his confession about the forgery. Very graphically he de- scribed every detail. From that hour Judith, of whom the Squire had never heard before, became a living member in his household of NEWS FOR THE RECTOR 353 friends. ** I must know that plucky little woman ! " he had exclaimed, appreciatively. She and that scamp of a husband of hers had better be my guests for a week." But I have not finished my story, Squire," said Guy, continuing. **The scamp of a husband is no longer living. We had him moved to a comfortable lodging higher up the street in which we had the interview, and we sent for a doctor, who said from the first he could not last many days. He died on the third night after that strange interview in which I got the lawyer to take down his deposition. I have sent it up to the Home Secretary, and am expecting daily to hear from him. Mean- while I have been to Scotland Yard and em- ployed a private detective, and there are advertisements in papers of every description ! " ''Offer a reward of ^loo to any one giving information," said the Squire, with energy. " I will gladly be responsible for that sum ; and, mark you, Mr. Manville, as soon as he is found he and his wife must make their home here. I said once before I should want him to be with me from time to time, but now I shall want it for always. It will be something for the Rector yonder to think about that his banished son- in-law is to be the future Squire of this neigh- bourhood, and have the gift of the parish living in his own hands ! " 354 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Far on into the night Guy and the Squire discussed plans about Aubrey, and when imme- diately after breakfast the next morning the two parted, it was with a promise on Mr. Man- ville's part that before long he would bring Dora Thatchet down one Saturday to lunch. As Guy was passing the Rectory, he saw Mr. Hastings in his garden. Stopping the carriage, he got out and went to him. " I expect you will not recognise me, Mr. Hastings, after all these years," he said, extend- ing his hand, but you remember my father^ Lord Horrick ? I am Guy, his second son ; unfortunately my elder brother died the summer before last." Come in, come in ; delighted to see you," the Rector said, warmly. But Guy explained that he was hurrying to catch an express train up to town. What has brought you this way ? " inquired the Rector. I went down to see the Squire on busines," said Guy, adding confidentially, the fact is, my dear friend Aubrey Rice is cleared from that cruel charge which landed him in prison some five years ago. The real culprit has made a confession, which now lies before the Home Secretary." *'You don't say so ; very interesting, I am sure," said Mr. Hastings, haughtily, to some NEWS FOR THE RECTOR 355 people at least ; but, for myself, the young man has long since disappeared from my hemisphere. He acted so contrary to my advice and wishes, and dragged my unfortunate daughter down with him ; these things are beyond forgiveness, Mr. Manville — beyond forgiveness ! " Ah, I see you have not yet measured the worth of a man like Aubrey Rice," said Guy, unmoved. "I can only say, in spite of his misfortunes, I should be proud to think he had married a sister of mine. He is still young ; and in God's good time we shall yet see him occupying an important position in life. I hear that in the future, how near or distant, of course, we cannot tell, this living will be in his gift-" This living ! " exclaimed the Rector, drawing himself up as if to challenge the repetition of such a gross misstatement, and his lip curled visibly. You forget," said Guy, laughing, how this must come about. Perhaps you have not heard that Aubrey Rice is the Squire's pro- spective heir ? " The news was like a thunderbolt to the Rector. Guy had raised his hat and taken his seat in the carriage and driven off before he had in any way recovered from the first shock of it. On reaching town Guy lost no time in 35^ THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY writing to tell the Squire what he had done. I am sure you will forgive me discussing your affairs with Mr. Hastings," said he; ''but it was a tempting opportunity in which to give poor Aubrey a better standing in the eyes of his father-in-law." A day or two later and every paper in the land had, it seemed, a paragraph affecting the wonderful story of an innocent man cleared. The announcement of the Home Secretary that her Majesty had been pleased to grant Aubrey Rice a free pardon was quickly followed by the story of Stanley Pritchard's confession, and in many cases the newspapers, in linking these two important facts together, gave for the benefit of their readers an outline of the trial, in which the overwhelming "circumstantial evidence " had led a British jury to condemn an innocent man. For some time after these newspaper para- graphs had appeared, Guy Manville watched with keen expectation the arrival of every post. His own name had been linked with the story — ''a gentleman visitor in the East-End lodging- houses, the discoverer of Stanley Pritchard, the forger," and so forth, what more natural than for Aubrey Rice to communicate with himself? But he waited in vain. Positively nothing happened — nothing suggestive of a clue to the discovery of his old friend. One day a caller NEWS FOR THE RECTOR 357 was announced ; a card was presented bearing- a name quite unknown to him, but when his eye caught the words, **a representative of Messrs. Catchpool Brothers," he hastened, almost gleefully, into the room where his visitor awaited him, for the moment impressed by the conviction that he could only come as the bearer of news about Aubrey. Great was his disappointment to find that the one seeking the interview was as anxious for news of the missing man as he was himself It is my privilege and pleasure to wait upon you, sir," said the gentleman in question, ''to express on behalf of my Firm the extreme regret at the action taken by themselves in reference to the prosecution of Mr. Aubrey Rice at the painful trial for forgery which took place some five years ago. It is our intention to offer the humblest apology to Mr. Rice when we see him — when, I should say, he comes out from his retreat, and takes again his place in society. If we can do this publicly we shall be all the better pleased. To offer compensation for the wrong we unconsciously did him at that painful time would be to add insult to injury ; but if he will allow us as a Firm to hand him over a sum of five thousand pounds as a token of our regard, and in expression of our regret for the trouble we caused him, we shall be honoured in the acceptance. Later, if Mr. Rice would care to 358 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY associate himself again with our Firm we will make suitable room for him. We shall consider his wishes in the matter our commands. If we could say more we would, so cruelly do we feel the act of injustice dealt by ourselves ! " Guy Manville was more than touched by this earnest avowal, although he smiled to himself as he wondered what the Squire would say to the suggestion that Aubrey should devote his future to a business which had indirectly been the cause of all his misfortunes. Having spoken thus on behalf of the Firm of Catchpool Brothers, the representative, who was no other than Mr. Everet-Arnold himself, led on by the great interest displayed by Mr. Manville, spoke in detail of Mr. Rice's residence with the Firm, owning with real grief how, for the time being, he personally had utterly mis- understood him, suffering himself to be unduly prejudiced by the one of all others, as events had turned out, unworthy of trust. At the close of the interview Guy Manville promised to communicate with the Firm at the earliest possible opportunity after his friend had returned to them. That he would return sooner or later Guy never doubted. But as time went on and no news came, he steadily set his brain to devise plans which should mean the closest possible search. But in spite of all the machinery which NEWS FOR THE RECTOR 359 was set working in this direction, the weeks and months glided by and no clue was found to lead to the discovery of Aubrey Rice and his wife. North, south, east, and west, Guy Manville searched the slums of the metropolis. That the two were in hiding, and cut off from intercourse with the world generally, was all too evident, or why the silence after all the publicity which had ^ been given to the case ? Possibly this view of the matter was due to Stanley Pritchard's story about seeing Aubrey. He had given details to Judith, during the few days in which he lived after he had been placed in the lodgings in Bromley Street, Stepney, of the chase he had had after the man addressing envelopes. He was absolutely positive this man was no other than Aubrey Rice. Hence Guy Manville somewhat readily fell into the belief that possibly now, as then, Aubrey would be in I somewhat straitened and needy circum- F stances ; indeed, might they not be more straitened and needy because longer time had elapsed ? Alas ! who can measure or define the limits of poverty when the drift downwards has actually set in, and who could venture to predict where exactly such drifting is likely to end ! After a while Guy was joined in his peregrin- ations through the lower quarters of the city by one of his college friends, who, with means 360 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY and leisure at his disposal, although not claim- ing Manville s Christian principle and purpose, "had a mind" to see for himself something of the ''submerged tenth." But the toil was apparently all lost. Across the enterprise and efforts made in all directions the word failure" might have been written. Sometifnes Guy- wondered if those whom they sought had passed beyond their reach ; had they died, crushed beneath their overwhelming trouble ? Then came the hope that, in spite of difficulties, they had found their chance and gone abroad. From that day the numerous advertisements which appeared in the newspapers from time to time, put in to catch the eye of Aubrey Rice, had invariably the words attached, Foreign papers, please copy." CHAPTER XXXII THE MAN WITH A PLATE One night the future Lord Horrick and his old college friend, by this time much absorbed in his study of the ''submerged tenth," found themselves in the historic neighbourhood of Soho Square. The determination to visit this immediate vicinity had come about from over- hearing a chance remark in an omnibus. Two ladies had been in animated conversation. They sat side by side and spoke in lowered tones. Suddenly one exclaimed in a voice raised by excitement, " Yes, I have often heard the same thing ; if you want to find a lost friend who has drifted down in life, look for him within a stone's throw of Soho Square! It is the haunt of the aristocratic victim of misfortune." " Who knows," said Guy afterwards to his companion, " but that we might at least hear something of poor Rice there, even if we did not actually come across him? We could make inquiries as we have done in the far East, and by some happy chance, some clue might be forthcoming." So the following evening the two friends 2 A 361 362 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY found their way to the spot in question. Those who do not know anything personally of this most interesting neighbourhood cannot con- ceive the strange fascination of walking down streets which in bygone days were associated with names so well known to fame — Hogarth, Charles Lamb, Mendelssohn, the original Novello, and a score of others. It was a close evening in June, not a breeze or breath stirring to relieve the oppression of the atmosphere, an evening when one instinc- tively longs for the country, if one's thoughts are free to wander, as certainly' Guy Manville's were not at that moment. He could not explain the fact, but never before in the weary search for Aubrey Rice had he felt quite the same hopefulness as to results as on this special occa- sion. Had he defined his reasons for this, he would probably have fallen back upon the initial circumstance of the case, namely, that the ground was altogether new to him. Eastwards and westwards he had been, but never before had this immediate district, with the special neigh- bourhood lying between it and the Strand, come under his notice. As Guy and his friend sauntered leisurely along the hot pavement, observing with astonishment the mansion-like houses, and noting with interest the names of the streets, Gibson Rhodes ventured the remark, The THE MAN WITH A PLATE Hebrew brother seems very much in evidence here ! I cannot think your old friend would willingly take up his residence amongst them. You remember from our previous experience we find, after all, that Christians and Hebrews seldom patronise the same locality ; where one is a marked feature the other will be missing. Of course, now we are here, it will be well to look round a bit ; but, my dear fellow, I do beseech you, cut it short ; this fragrant neigh- bourhood is even less inviting than many of your favourite spots 'down East.'" You offered to come with me," said Guy, cheerfully ; ''stick to your bargain, old fellow. I mean to have a thorough look round, now I am here ! " Gibson Rhodes sighed. " So like you, Manville, never to say die. Well, I would feel less depressed, I daresay, at the present moment if only just to oblige us the thermometer were to be lowered 20 degrees. Just look at these people's faces. Did you ever see despair written more plainly ? " The statement was too true to be contra- dicted. The hot evening had brought men and women to their doors. Those of advanced years looked strangely weary and dispirited, while the younger ones, particularly the men, loungers at street corners and outside public- houses, had faces which for the most part wore 364 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY that pitiable expression which denotes the aim- lessness and hopelessness of a life which has failed. But Guy was quick to call his friend's atten- tion to the children playing about, many of whom were strikingly beautiful, and all looked for the most part healthy and well cared for — a marked contrast to the street children of Whitechapel and Shadwell. " Now, do notice," said Guy, as they paused and watched two lads chasing each other, twisting and turning about from one side of the street to the other, backwards and forwards, as if the village green and not the hot London pavement were their playground, " these youngsters about here will contrast with definite advantage with country children of like age. These have an intelligence which those lack. I am quite convinced that the average city child possesses a measure of vitality unknown to its apparently more favoured country cousin. You see, with these youngsters, every hour of the day is doing its work of education, admittedly not always of the most healthful kind ; whereas, with the village child, lack of variety, shop windows, with their endless objects of interest ; the cry of the news- paper boy sharpening the wits which try to take in up-to-date news ; and the hundred and one things which go to make up city life ; THE MAN WITH A PLATE the lack of variety has at least the tendency to leave the brain a little sleepy, and the fullest capacity of enjoyment undeveloped." ''Ah! now I come to think of it," observed Gibson Rhodes, suddenly noticing that they had turned into Frith Street, I had an interesting book in my hand the other day — Card well's ' Two Centuries in Soho ' — it was when calling on a friend in Russell Square (and I only glanced at it while waiting for her ladyship to appear), but I distinctly recall an allusion to Frith Street, once, in the good old times, known as Thrifty Street." '* I think the change of name, or rather the fact that it has been changed, is very sugges- tive," said Guy, glad to find his friend had found something to be interested in. ''It looks as if, in giving up the wholesome word ' Thrifty,' one could hear a sort of wail : the better condi- tions of life had no place here ; the scramble to live precluded saving of all kinds ; take a name that sounds something like it, but which offers no insult to poverty. Stay, stop a moment ; look at that man crossing the road. Gibson, t^a^'s Aubrey Rice. Good heavens ! how altered!" Guy's sudden excitement was due to his attention fixing itself at that moment upon a man who had just passed them, coming out of a fish shop, and was making his way to the other 366 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY side of the street, carrying most carefully a plate covered by a piece of newspaper. Upon this his eyes were fixed very intently. As I never happened to see even a photo- graph of your friend, I'm not in a position to deny what you say," said Gibson Rhodes in answer, but it strikes me that yon poor fellow doesn't look much like a gentleman by birth; but there's no telling how one's misfortunes may alter a man ! " **If it's not Rice, WTeck as the man looks, I will never trust my own eyes again ! " exclaimed Guy, impulsively. He must be forgiven talking in exaggerated tones. The weary months of long searching in which not even one ray of hope had come to cheer him made the present moment one of sublime excitement. Some one so like the man sought for, allowing for the difference which his misfortunes must have caused, was actually before him. Without even one inquiry in the various lodging-houses towards which Guy was at that moment making his way, there was the man. Let us follow him," said Manville ; "it would be a pity to make a scene in the street ; he is too intent upon what he is carrying to notice us." Guy spoke as one labouring under great excitement. And well it might be so, for at least he believed himself at last to have found the man who at a word from THE MAN WITH A PLATE himself would find all life changed to him — one moment bearing the brand of the criminal, the next restored to his rights as a free and honour- able member of society. They crossed the road, following closely the poor fellow, whose footsteps dragged, perhaps more from hopelessness and mental weariness than from actual physical tiredness. His head was bent down over the plate he carried, but as he turned a corner to the left into Church Street, which is noted as being situated between the historic church of St. Anns' and the modernly erected Palace Theatre, either building standing out boldly at their respective ends, Guy caught another glimpse of his face. This time he was more sure than even at the first that the man they were following was none other than the man they had sought by every means to trace — Aubrey Rice. Neither spoke after that. Gibson Rhodes forgot about the sultry atmosphere, forgot his haste to quit the neighbourhood, forgot almost his' interest in the man whom it was the desire to hunt to ground ; the absorbing thought to him at that moment was his friend, Guy Manville. How would he bear his disap- pointment when he found they had been following a Will-o'-the-wisp," for, by the utmost stretch of the imagination, how could any one believe that that poor, miserable-look- 368 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ing fellow could claim at one time to have been a man of education and culture ? Guy Manville's excitement was positively touching. Gibson wished his friend's fiancee. Miss Thatchet, could see him at that moment. The expression on his face was almost seraphic ! " Ah, his Christianity is the genuine article," he mused. I know he has prayed a good deal about finding his friend, and he has got it into his head that his prayer is about to be answered. . . Meanwhile a few doors down to the left, the man followed had paused, standing aside to let some people pass him before entering the door of a somewhat imposing-looking house. Guy quickened his footsteps and Gibson Rhodes kept up with him. The followed man had entered, and the door closed just as his pursuers reached it, but it was soon seen that, though shut, the said door was not latched. Guy gently pushed it open, and as it swung back they found themselves in quite a wide passage of a four-storeyed house. True, the first impres- sion was one suggesting that this well-built house, like so many people of the district, had once known better days. Its frescoed walls, faded, and in some places defaced completely ; the oaken staircase visibly much dilapidated ; the general air of shabby gentility about the THE MAN WITH A PLATE place removed it far above an ordinary and modernly - built lodging - house or tenement- dwelling. And now the question was, what had become of the man with the plate ? There was not a trace of him to be seen, and yet no time had been lost. He has made more haste inside than he did out," remarked Guy, "or he could not have packed himself away so quickly. But as this seems to be an open house what is to hinder us from mounting the staircase and knocking at the first door we come to ? " And upon this Guy started to put his sugges- tion into action. Before, however, he had reached the first landing, a little golden-haired girl came out from a room, the door of which was speedily closed after her exit, and as she waited for him to complete his mount ere she commenced to descend, he found a chance of asking her a few questions. Have you some one living here named Rice ? " he said, so standing that the child addressed could not pass him until he moved out of her way. No one," was the concise reply. "Perhaps," suggested Gibson, "you may not know the names of all who live here.'^ There will surely be more than one family in this large house ? " 370 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY " Yes, indeed," said the child, laughing ; there are eight families here — one for each room. It's only last week that the Jones' left. When worked in Covent Garden they did the swell and hired two rooms — back and front landing above this ; but times got awful bad with them, and they removed off to the buildings in Charing Cross Road, and their rooms have been let to two sets. I almost forget their names, Simmons or Simond, or something of that sort. Those are the people in the front, and at the back it's Salt. I shouldn't forget that name, because it's so easy, isn't it ? " Who, then, lives in the room next the one you have just come from ? " asked Gibson Rhodes, very much interested in noticing the graceful manners and gentle tones of the little girl before them. Oh ! " was the reply, that's another set of Jones'. They are very poor, because the father's a cripple, you see. He does next to nothing ; but the parson, he comes to see him, and he's very good to him. Sometimes his lady sends him broken victuals from the Rectory. Everybody knows he would work if he could, so we kind of feel glad when he's helped." Well, now, you have told us the names of all upon the two top floors — that is this one and THE MAN WITH A PLATE 37 1 one above. But are there not rooms just below us near the entrance ? " It was Guy Manville again who put the question ; this time he spoke more deliberately. Was he losing hope ? They're the Martins and the Cholmneys," was the quick reply. Old Mr. Cholmney used to play the organ beautiful. Once he got the verger to blow for him in St. Ann's, and we children, I mean me and my two brothers, heard him give it those key-notes fine. He hammered and scolded and shook them like anything — it was just like a thunderstorm ; then all of a sudden the sun was a-shining — I mean it sounded as if it had become a lovely summer evening, and Jack and me said we could hear the birds twittering in the trees as they got ready for bed, like we used to hear them when we lived in the country, and we could smell the new-mown hay and the wall- flower and mignonette that grew in grandad's garden. Oh, it was grand ! " And the child's eyes were glistening with animated feeling, and her little chest heaved as she came to a sudden stop in her description. And where is Mr. Cholmney now?" said Guy. Oh, he used to drink," said the child, in lowered voice, ''and he got ill and was took to the Infirmary and died." 372 T^flE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY It was impossible not to be touched by this vividly - depicted narrative. At any other moment Guy would have been content to question and cross-question the little girl if only to hear her speak and get more of her picture-illustrations, but he was impatient to run to earth the man with a plate. I think, perhaps, there are rooms down- stairs, are there not ? " he suggested. Oh, yes ; the kitchens, they let for four shillings a week," was the quick reply. *' Widow Smith has the back. She's been bad with bronchitis, and the nurse comes to see her. Then in the front there's a lot of little children who've got no mother, only a sister and father to take care of them. Oh ! I forgot they cleared out last week. It's some new people who've got that kitchen ; and there's somebody ill there, only I don't think nurse goes." " Thank you for all you have told me," said Guy, adding, as he slipped half a crown into the little girl's hand, "you must put this in your money-box, and some day I hope we may see you again." The little girl in question dropped a low curtsey, a movement which proclaimed her country born and bred, then she hurried back into her one-roomed home to tell mother " of the great gift she had had. THE MAN WITH A PLATE 373 Meanwhile Guy and Gibson retraced their steps and quickly regained the entrance passage. From this they found their way to the kitchen flight of stairs. It was very dark and they had to grope their way slowly, cautiously. Anxious to perform the feat noiselessly, they descended the ten or twelve steps which led to the kitchen. No open door from below lighted them, no window from above. ''This is what I call 'walking by faith,' with a vengeance," said Gibson, in a whisper. " My friend, vengeance and faith will not run together," replied Guy, who was leading the way. "If you must talk, be more careful with your words." His tones were very cheery, even while hushed. It had a most stimulating effect upon Guy to be so near to the man who, if not his long-lost friend Aubrey Rice — supposing he, after all, was labouring under a delusion — was so like him that the resemblance even brought some relief to the long suspense of the hitherto, unsuccessful search. At length the door of the kitchen to the premises was safely reached. It took a moment or two to be sure of their bear- ings, but, when he was, Guy knocked softly ; then, failing to get an answer, a litde louder. There was a sound of movement within — only the replacing of a chair — then muffled tones, gentle persuasion and enfeebled remonstrance,. 374 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY a voice, the deeper one of the two, getting more distinct as it neared the door. A moment later and the door was opened. Come in, doctor," said the one from within, ''you are a little before your time. Excuse my having kept you waiting." But the one supposed to be the doctor never moved. Guy Manville stood riveted to the spot; Gibson Rhodes, behind him, hidden away in the darkness. As the door opened the evening light came through the two windows (which were about level with the pavement outside from which they were separated by an ordinary grating), revealing very clearly every object in the room which Guy was invited to enter. A bed backed the wall which faced the light ; upon this lay a sick woman ; by her side was a table, covered by a spotlessly white cloth, and upon this table stood the plate of fish which had been so carefully carried home. The room was in perfect ordeT, its scant furniture giving it an air of neatness which a better furnished room would possibly have lacked. All this Guy took in at a glance as his eyes grew somewhat accustomed to the light. The one who had bidden him enter stood a little to the side, holding the door in his hands. He was glancing at his sick wife, when a few words from the one for whom he held the door THE MAN WITH A PLATE 375 open caused him to turn round quickly with a muffled cry of dismay. The words which had so affected him were these — ''Aubrey, old chap, we have found you at last. Praise God ! " CHAPTER XXXIII THESE DAYS AND THOSE It was three years after the events narrated in the last chapter, on a certain morning in December, that the Squire of Edgcombe Manor House paced his Hbrary with hurried and excited footsteps. Again and again he paused, and, raising his hand to his brow, and reverently bending his head, ejaculated short sentences of prayer. Lord spare the mother for the child's sake and the child for the mother's. Oh, God, give my more than son, Aubrey, the joy of fatherhood ! He is worthy. We are such a united family. Thou knowest. For Christ, Thy Son's sake, don't separate us yet awhile." The old man grew comforted while thus lift- ing his thoughts heavenwards, and, as time wore on, his restlessness ceased. He had taken his seat by the window, watching for fully half an hour a heavy fall of snow, when the library door suddenly opened, and Aubrey Rice entered. He came in with more of the eagerness and animation of the old Aubrey than the Squire had seen in the three years he and his wife had 376 THESE DAYS AND THOSE 377 been residing at the Manor House. His face was all aglow with new life, new light. little son, Squire," he said in buoyant tones ; then he walked to the window, from which Mr. Butler- Edgcombe had moved away on hearing the door open, and pressed his forehead against the glass, in vain struggling with his emotion. The Squire, assuming to take no notice, rang the bell, and, on the butler's answering it, said quickly, Send Morris to the verger's at once, and ask him to arrange for the church bells to ring a peal. Tell him a little son has arrived at the Manor House." And Jinks' face was almost as beaming as his master's as he hastened off to do the Squire's bidding. And now a strange thing happened. The Rector had two years previously had a partial stroke of paralysis, recovering from it in measure, but only to sink into the deepest depression from which they had in vain sought to rouse him. He would sit for hours silent and unemployed ; if questions were put to him he, more often than not, only answered by nodding or shaking his head. A curate had been appointed to take charge until his recovery or until he resigned the living. Previous to this stroke Gertrude had sent him a little note simply asking — it was on their return from the 2 B 378 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY Continent after the first visit with the Squire — if she might come and see him, to receive a curt reply — '*It would be well for Mrs. Aubrey Rice to remember the conditions she herself accepted some years ago. The Rector had no intention of forgetting them," by which Gertrude read that her request had been refused. To-day, as the church bells broke out into a joyful peal, Mr. Hastings looked up from his arm-chair, where he had sat motionless and unoccupied ever since the breakfast table had been cleared, and said quickly, ''What now?" *' Gertrude has a little son," said his daughter Jane, who had just come into the room at the time. **Your grandchild, father," and she stooped down and kissed her fathers brow, as if in mute congratulation. Then suddenly the Rector got up from his chair, unaided, and exclaimed excitedly, " Send for Aubrey and ask the Squire to come too, or, better still, take me there." Now it chanced that Gertrude saw her sisters almost every week at church, but, fearing to offend their father, not one of them had been to the Manor House. Hence it happened that the Rector's request threw the girls — all were at home — into a state of unbounded delight. It was quickly decided for Jane to accompany him, and no time was lost in getting the brougham round. Fortunately the horse had THESE DAYS AND THOSE 379 only an hour or two previously been "roughed" in case he might be required to take either of the young ladies to the railway station. The Rector was all eagerness to get into a greatcoat which hung up in the hall near enough to the oil -stove to be considered aired, and which had not been worn for over two years. Jane lost no time in getting ready. Many and many a time she had in the past sought to say a word for Gertrude, though all in vain, until the Rector had forbidden her name ever to be mentioned to him again. Surely, thought Jane, the birth of a little grandchild had come like summer sunshine to banish all the mists of bygone years. The Squire and Aubrey noticed the Rectory carriage driving slowly through the snow. " Some one comes to make inquiries after the young mother," said the Squire. '*It is the Rector himself," said Aubrey, solemnly, and he at once left the room and descended to the hall. The Rector's conduct had been both brutal and barbarous, unjusti- fiable by the search-light of either Christianity or civilisation. But what cared Aubrey at this moment! A little child was born into the world, and, by some mysterious and reverent association of ideas with the Babe of centuries ago, it had brought with it peace and good- will." 380 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY You have come to congratulate us, Rector," Aubrey had said, going at once to the old- fashioned and somewhat of a heavy lumbering style of carriage, the door of which he opened, extending his hand to the occupier. I have, I have, humbly, and with deep thankfulness," was the tearful response. And upon that came the Squire, and insisted the Rector should come in ; and then Aubrey was all anxiety with the solicitude of a devoted son lest Mr. Butler- Edgcombe should take cold, and the persuasive tones were mostly Aubrey's, and were divided between hospitable welcome on the one hand and earnest pleading to get away from the cold on the other. And all the time the bells were ringing a joyous peal. The Rector had not wanted much persuading. His daughter Jane was quick to ask Aubrey to give him just the help required to meet the needs of restricted movement. And thus did a humbled Rector cease from anger and forsake wrath. To the two men who did him honour but one thought was uppermost in their minds. This was Gertrude's father ; Gertrude would be pleased," but it would come to each later the deep thankfulness that the long-broken friend- ship between the Manor House and the Rectory had that day been repaired. It was the Squire and Jane Hastings who THESE DAYS AND THOSE 38 1 did most of the talking at the luncheon table. Aubrey spoke when necessary, but his power to keep up a flowing conversation had never returned to him since ''those days." When first coming to the Manor House, the day following that memorable evening when Guy Manville found them in Soho, Aubrey had needed as much care and nursing as Gertrude. The Squire had put the west wing entirely at their disposal, and for quite three months they scarcely left their prescribed quarters. Gradu- ally and by degrees they became once more accustomed to the ways and surroundings of refined and cultured society. Of all they had gone through and suffered in those terrible forty months in hiding they never spoke except to Guy and his wife Dora, who were frequent visitors at the Manor House. They had early heard the story, from the start (the night of escape) to the bitter end. Aubrey had succeeded, quite early in the history of the time following his escape from prison, in filling a position suddenly vacated in an office in Euston Road by a young man who was lodging where they did in Bloomsbury, a boarding-house with easy terms. He had gone with the news of the young man's sudden illness and had been offered the work until his re- covery. Later, when it was found that the young clerk in question must have a sea voyage 382 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY before he could possibly return to the office, Aubrey's appointment passed from temporary" to ''permanent the employer did not care to keep the position open ; if his friend, who passed under the name of Sam Hilliery, cared to settle down he could. Aubrey had cared very much to do so, but, unfortunately, in the fourth month it was decided, in order to meet the requirements of increasing business, to take on a second clerk, and alas ! for the poor escaped convict, who should that be but a young fellow who had been one of the junior apprentices at Catch- pool Brothers during Aubrey's time with the Firm. Had he been an older or more reliable man it might have been possible to have taken him into his confidence and have made him his friend, but the risk was too great. Aubrey grew nervous at the mere thought. He had seen the correspondence which had followed a personal interview when Aubrey had not been present ; and on the day of the young man's coming to take up his duties he had met him on the landing as he was about to pass into the office. With a start the new-comer had exclaimed, " Why, it must be Mr. Rice, only — " ** My name is Sam Hilliery," said Aubrey, trying to steady his voice ; "and yours ? " THESE DAYS AND THOSE Well, I never saw such a wonderful likeness before," continued the new-comer. Of course, you heard of that dreadful case of forgery, Catchpool Brothers, October twelve months. My ! it was a set out ; the young fellow was all in a hurry to get married, and as funds were low — it's a pretty stiff business taking and fur- nishing a house, you see — he helped himself, you know, to what wasn't his." By this time they had entered the office, and there was nothing to hinder a long recital of the case quoted. Excuse me," interrupted Aubrey, **but we come here for work, and have no time for gossip ! " I see you know all about it," said the young man with a sneer, as at that moment the employer came from an inner office, and greeted him courteously as a new-comer. Aubrey's life was a terror to him that day. He had known next to nothing of this apprentice when at Catchpool's, but had the impression that he was not thought too well of, the probable cause of his having no longer any connection with the Firm. Supposing he was led to talk to others of the wonderful forgery case," as would be natural, and some one had chanced to see that the convicted man had escaped from prison, and that the police were searching for him, what was to 384 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY hinder the young fellow growing suddenly- important by going up to Scotland Yard and telling the authorities there that a man in his office was the very image of the one wanted ? : The risk was too great, and the anxiety associated with it would be too severe a strain. There seemed no help for it ; he must leave. So, on the second day, Gertrude had an interview with the manager, saying her husband had been called suddenly to the death-bed of his father down in the country, and would be pleased to put a man in his place, as she was sure business would keep him away, if not altogether, for an indefinite time. She had only stayed behind to bring this message, and now she must follow her husband with all speed. Gertrude had met with but scant courtesy. ''Just the way if you take on a man of whom you practically know nothing ; bound to be something unexpected happen. He did not believe a word of her story. Her husband was on the drink. Why didn't she own up at once ? " and so forth. Poor Gertrude had left the office humbled to the dust. It had cost her something to utter so glibly these terrible falsehoods, but what was to be done? Until the truth came out which would establish Aubrey's innocence, how could they be open and above board " — as her husband phrased it — in their conduct ? To one THESE DAYS AND THOSE 385 of Gertrude's temperament this was after all a very heavy price to pay for "liberty, sweet liberty." Then had followed a series of misfortunes. Oh, how quickly one evil lands you into another ! It was utterly impossible for Aubrey to get work of a suitable kind, with a fair salary, without reference or testimonial. There were, to a man free to move about without dreading daylight detection, many odd and chance positions to fill when the unexpected had happened, and an extra hand was required, but even then the one seeking employment would be casually known to some one else. It was the need to stand alone, to be absolutely isolated, which presented the chief difficulty in getting work. For a while Aubrey had managed to pick up a little special book-keeping, working for small tradespeople, who were glad to have their weekly accounts made out for them ; but the pay was terribly inadequate to the time expended, often only averaging threepence an hour. A shilling for four hours' work would be accounted smart remuneration " by the one who knew, by a little effort on his part, he could have managed the whole thing himself This temporary starvation wage had led to other difficulties. With such bad pay it had been quite impossible to live any longer in two 386 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY rooms — the boarding-house plan had long ago been given up — whence one had been taken. And so the story, as told to Guy and Dora, ran. It is not our intention to trace poor Aubrey and his faithful wife through their quick and calamitous down-drifting. Enough to say, starting with HOPE, spelt with capital letters, they grew in time to be utterly despondent. Existence itself became a burden because of enfeebled health. Deeper and deeper in despair they sank, looking each other in the face with dumb questioning, How much lower can we sink ? " They had no heart to read even a newspaper ; to talk with a neighbouring lodger was out of the question. At least they could keep their secret safe while sharing it with none ; and better almost that life itself should end than for those who knew them in the past to realise how deplorably outcast their condition of to-day. And so they sank to the level of the destitute. Envelope-directing was at last Aubrey's chief means of finding bare sustenance, and this of the poorest kind. This work never failed him, but health often limited the power to get through it to any very great extent. From this low land of the severest mental anguish and depression that human beings could ever be called upon to suffer, there stood THESE DAYS AND THOSE 387 out clearly defined two headlands of variety. The one was the unexpected meeting with Stanley Pritchard, from whose pursuit Aubrey had fled as for dear life ; the other a letter from the Rector. The latter incident came about on this wise. Moving for the tenth or twelfth time into a new locality, some chance happening causing Aubrey's sensitive mind unrest — an over- inquisitive neighbour, close questioning from the agent who collected the rent, or a more steadfast gaze than usual from a passing police- man being quite sufficient reason to make a change desirable — they got into the kindly hands of a city missionary. Convinced that the young couple, so silent as to their personal history, so superior in every way to their environment, were worthy of a helping hand, good old Mr. Larkins suggested one day that if only Mr. Hilliery could produce a reference from a clergyman he could put him into a clerk's place — he could himself see to suitable clothing — where he would be factotum to an elderly man losing his eyesight. His duties were to sit in a back parlour of a small shop in Booksellers' Row and write letters at his employer's dictation, make and correct catalogues of books, with the purchase and sale of which he had nothing whatever to do. For this he would be paid 388 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY eighteen shillings a week and get his dinner and tea thrown in. The hours were from ten to eight. To Aubrey this sounded suggestive of a haven of rest. How many weary miles did he walk in a week, bringing envelopes home to be addressed and taking them back ? (Never since the encounter with Stanley Pritchard dare he venture to the men's club-room in Drury Lane, where, by paying a few coppers weekly to the deputy, he was allowed special permission to privileges supposed to be exclusively the lodgers'. This had saved his steps and made work easier in many ways, hence his earnings had been better week by week.) But how was this reference to be secured ? To whom could he possibly make application ? Gertrude, in sheer desperation, hit upon a plan. She would write to her father, stating the case briefly. For his own sake he would not, how- ever angry, dare to make use of the informa- tion and bring Aubrey to the notice of the police. His heart might be touched, for, after all, was she not his own child, his own flesh and blood ? Aubrey was difficult to persuade that the plan would answer, but Gertrude's tearful pleading won the day, and the letter was sent. Oh, what a letter it was ! How full of silent pathos, how dignified in the bare mention of the fact THESE DAYS AND THOSE. 389 that as an escaped prisoner it was necessary to remain in hiding until the actual perpetrator of the crime confessed his wrong-doing. How- pathetic the plea : For my dead mother's sake, help us by speaking kindly of Aubrey to the one who will write to you, and so securing work which will considerably lessen our present trouble." To this letter Gertrude had received no answer. Again and again she had called at the post office to which she had asked for any reply to be addressed. She had given her assumed name. Meanwhile the city missionary came round to their one-roomed tenement to say he had heard from the clergyman, and he was sorry to say the reference was not satisfactory. Pressed to show the correspondence, he pro- duced the letter, which read thus — " Sir, — I regret I can say nothing good of Mr. S. Hilliery. Whether he goes under his own name or the one he has for purposes best known to himself assumed, he is a man I hold in sovereign contempt. — Yours faithfully, "Archibald Hastings, Rector of Thus died out from the hearts of these two troubled souls the last ray of hope . . . And yet was not the Rev. Archibald Hastings, M.A., Rector, more to be pitied than they.-* 390 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY After this had come Gertrude's illness, long and tedious, the illness which comes through mental strain and heart disappointment, and their removal later to Soho, Aubrey still earning what money he had time and strength to make at that monotonous toil of addressing envelopes. Having told their story, Guy urged upon them to, as far as possible, dismiss the past from their minds. Let them both devote themselves to the good Squire, who was so determined to leave them in the full enjoyment of his wealth when the time came for him to go from earthly scenes. And with returning health there had come the power to throw off dismal memories. Two or three trips to the Continent came later, for a few weeks at a time, when the Squire accom- panied them as eager as a child to see the things he had heard of and read about. Then had come a longer journey, and this, in part, the Squire s own planning, although it would deprive him for the space of three months, at least, of the companionship upon which he was learning so much to depend : they crossed the Atlantic to renew the acquaintance of the chief warder and Amy, giving cheer and practical expression of gratitude to those who so richly deserved to be remembered. Aubrey felt free to bestow gifts worthy of acceptance since the compensation cheque had been handed over to THESE DAYS AND THOSE 39 1 him by the Firm of Catchpool Brothers, with many sincere expressions of regret for the past, and most advantageous offers for the future should he honour the Firm by becoming associated with *it once more " — overtures not Hkely for a moment to be entertained, as the heir of Edgcombe Manor had duties ready to assert themselves in other directions so soon as he was equal to the demand. Long before this the good farmer and his wife from South Hill had been invited to the Manor House, spending a most enjoyable three days, all the time that could be spared from the farm, and receiving on their departure a sealed packet not to be opened until their return home, iVubrey's pleasant little plan of dis- charging a debt of some standing. The packet was afterwards discovered to contain ;^ioo in Bank of England notes, a slip of paper giving the explanation, '' For board and lodging and in acknowledgment of kindness received," with a certain memorable date. Meanwhile the Squire had said that it only needed good Inspector Benson to complete the little family party. At which both Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard had looked grave, so impos- sible was it for them to lose the memory of that night's anxiety. No, even though legally in possession of the freedom to which he had fullest right, it was still expedient, in the inter- 392 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY ests of Others, to leave untold the romantic associations of No. 75 s wonderful escape. And so to this day the prison authorities and officials will have it that the unfortunate man who made the drop of 30 feet in order to effect his escape must have injured himself for life, probably shortened his existence by some few years, although no record of his injuries was before the public when Aubrey Rice's free pardon was declared and subsequently claimed. Nor was old Sarah, the faithful servant, for- gotten. With some difficulty she was found (having changed her address no less than seven times) in enfeebled health ; indeed, very much broken in mind as well as body. " She was so good to my mother," said Aubrey, as he gave the Squire some details of their call upon the poor woman. And to me * Mrs. Rice, junior,' as she would call me all in a breath," said Gertrude. I have the highest regard for that poor old body, and when I think how she puzzled the doctor about the exact business which had called Aubrey away, and kept him without his right address — he told me all about it after I got better — I quite love her for her loyalty." **Then, my dear lady," said the Squire, warmly, rubbing his hands as he spoke, '*it shall rest with you to send her the invitation to come to No. 5 Edgcombe Alms Houses, THESE DAYS AND THOSE 393 that one being vacant, and take up her abode amongst us. She has no need to refer to the troubled past in her intercourse with the other inmates. We know how well she can keep a secret, all we remember of her — -I mean you and your husband ; vou think she's a worthy recipient of Alms House bounties ? " Indeed we do ! No one more so ! " ex- claimed Aubrey and Gertrude almost in one breath. Then that settles the matter," said the Squire, beaming. It was a singular pleasure to him just now to make plans which seemed to bind the two, who were so much to him to-day, more closely to his own personal life and associations. It would be many years before Aubrey was called to take his place as Squire of the Manor, and long before this event Guy would have come into the title of Lord Horrick, and Judith, Stanley Pritchard's widow, having passed through her hospital training, would be matron of a convalescent home in Devonshire; but the intervening years were full of abundant interest. Baby feet pattered about the old Manor House ; with charming audacity roguish little people claimed Grandpapa's study" for a nursery in preference to the one Nurse called their own. Baby voices made sweet music in the long picture gallery, unmindful of the 2 C 394 THE ROMANCE OF AN EMERGENCY solemn portraits frowning down upon them. Baby hearts generated a wealth of love which freshened and made fragrant the home-life atmosphere around them. Certainly the Squire had a very happy old age. Far and wide his goodness to the unforunate and poverty-stricken would be talked about, with endless illustrations, more or less true to life ; and if at times the old cronies, enjoying the privileges of his Alms Houses, told the story to new-comers of that wonderful marriage between Miss Matilda Edgcombe and the butler, it was sure to end with a warm God bless him ! Yon Manor House has never boasted a better Squire ! " Which says a good deal for The Romance of an Emergency ! " THE END. William Hodge & Co., Printers, Glasgow and Edinburgh.